Metro

Councilors seek exploration of a Fire Department cadet program

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

One year after the police cadet program was reinstated, two city councilors are exploring a similar initiative for the Boston Fire Department to help boost the number of blacks and Latinos in the city’s fire service.

Councilor Andrea Campbell, who heads the Public Safety Committee, said she will urge a hearing on the matter at the council’s weekly meeting Wednesday.

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Both the police and fire departments are bound by civil service laws that give returning military veterans employment preference — a fact many advocates say makes it difficult to achieve diversity in a city where more than half of the population is nonwhite.

But the issue has long loomed over the Fire Department, where a little more than a quarter of the department’s 1,500-member uniformed workforce are people of color, city data show.

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Campbell said she supports the Fire Department’s effort in recruiting minority veterans to increase diversity, but she also wants to “begin a conversation” about the feasibility of creating another pathway around civil service.

“I think we need to have conversations about what it takes to be a veteran, and making sure they have access to jobs within our community when they come back from serving our country,” said Campbell, who is urging the hearing, along with Councilor Bill Linehan.

The city’s fire commissioner, Chief Joseph Finn, is a Marine veteran. He said he is committed to increasing minority representation and ensuring the department is more reflective of the communities it serves. He added that he wants to achieve diversity in a way that conforms with civil service laws and does not create divisiveness in the department.

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Since becoming commissioner, Finn has hired a diversity officer and made recruiting minority veterans a priority. He said he plans to attend the council’s hearing.

“I want to be open-minded and hear what the councilors’ concerns are,’’ Finn said. “But I also have reservations around the legality of it, the conflict that will arise around the veterans’ piece, and the scope of the work and what they can do.”

Police cadets shadow officers and help out with administrative work. But in the Fire Department, they would not be legally able to get on a fire truck, and there is little administration work at a fire house, officials said.

Fire Captain Darrell Higginbottom, who has long advocated for diversity of the fire force, said he was encouraged by the proposed hearing, but he hopes it’s not just political talk. Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has said increasing diversity in the city’s work force is a priority, is seeking reelection.

“It is something that is long overdue,’’ said Higginbottom, president of the Boston Society of Vulcans, a minority group of firefighters pressing the diversity issue. “I know they keep giving excuses about why they can’t do it. We know that within the scope of the civil service law they can do it.”

He noted that both the fire and police departments are bound by civil service laws.

“We have hundreds of administration jobs in the Fire Department that [a cadet can do],” Higginbottom said.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, which had urged a fire cadet program as a way to boost diversity, was also pleased with Campbell’s call to explore the possibility of creating one.

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the organization, said the police cadet program serves as a “critical entry point for diverse cadets.” It would do the same in the Fire Department, he added.

“The cadet program is not a silver bullet, but it is the step in the right direction,’’ he said. ”The Fire Department needs to be thinking about nontraditional ways of achieving diversity and inclusion.”

Campbell said the goal is to explore other avenues outside of the purview of civil service and state and federal laws that give preference to veterans.

Campbell said she had been hearing from people in her district – which includes parts of Mattapan, Dorchester, Roslindale, and Jamaica Plain – about how the preference made it difficult to give people in communities of color, and white Bostonians who are not veterans, a chance for a well-paid job in their hometown fire service.

“I do see it as a way in which to support the folks in my district,’’ she said. “The cadet program is a way in which to get folks in there now and train them early, so they can be promoted all the way up to command staff.”

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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