A proposal to explore a cadet program to boost diversity in the Boston Fire Department is running into stiff resistance from former military service members who said they will “vigorously oppose” such an initiative and use “all legal resources available” to protect veterans from discrimination.
In a letter delivered recently to members of the City Council, which is considering the proposal, the Massachusetts Military Veterans Alliance wrote that the creation of a cadet program within the Boston Fire Department would be a “dangerous experiment” in public safety. The letter said it was “disgraceful” that the city is considering placing inexperienced cadets into the department over veterans of all backgrounds who have served their country.
“We want to be clear that we view any effort to circumvent civil service law to be a . . . bold attack on veterans within the city of Boston,” said the letter, signed by the alliance, a coalition of eight military veterans organizations and public safety groups.
The Boston Fire Department is the least diverse city department — 72 percent of 1,500 uniformed members are white. Both the police and fire departments are bound by civil service laws that give preference to returning military veterans in hiring — a fact many advocates say makes it difficult to achieve diversity in a city where more than half of the population is nonwhite.
Diversity advocates said that since a judge struck down a court order meant to diversify the ranks of the city’s fire service in 2003, the Fire Department has become increasingly white.
Those advocates have urged the City Council to create a fire cadet program similar to one used by the Boston Police Department as one pathway into the fire service, where firefighters can make more than $100,000 annually.
Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn has said he supports efforts to increase diversity on the force, but said that such initiatives must fall within the confines of civil service laws. Since taking charge, he has hired a diversity chief and stepped up efforts to recruit minority veterans.
Councilor Andrea Campbell, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, is planning to hold a hearing on the feasibility of a fire cadet program, possibly this spring. She said she applauds the commissioner’s recruitment efforts, but wants to begin a discussion that explores other “tools that might be available to increase diversity.”
“It’s important that we do not frame this issue as veterans against communities of color or vice versa,’’ said Campbell, who along with Councilor Bill Linehan called the hearing. The 11 other councilors agreed to the hearing, which will include updates on the cadet program in the Police Department.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he supports the councilors’ efforts and is waiting to see their findings, but stressed that a fire cadet program would not replace veterans’ preference in hiring.
“This [has] nothing to do with veterans in a negative way,’’ Walsh said. “The veterans’ preference and the civil service test are still there. I support the veterans. I support the great work the veterans do in our city and in our country in defending our country.”
But the effort touched a tender nerve among veterans, who feel their legal protections are under attack.
Michael Devin, spokesman for the veterans alliance, stressed in an e-mail that the military and its veterans have long promoted diversity “as we have all sweat, bled, and cried amongst all humans of all races, religions and creeds.”
He said the alliance wants to work with minority groups to solve diversity issues while also maintaining veterans’ preference and conforming to civil service law.
“Our concern is about circumvention of current laws in order to bypass veterans’ preference utilizing an archaic system that does not fix the diversity issues but instead places unqualified individuals ahead of all, veterans and nonveterans alike,” Devin said.
In the letter, the alliance said a cadet program will not prepare individuals for work in the Fire Department, as cadets would not be permitted to engage in fire suppression, prevention, or rescue.
Alliance members said they plan to attend the City Council hearing and, in the letter, suggested that the real problem is a lack of racial minorities taking the civil service exam. The alliance said an aggressive recruitment effort involving its organizations could be a solution to increasing diversity in the department.
Fire Captain Darrell Higginbottom, who represents a group of minority firefighters pressing for more diversity, said many veterans are members of the group he leads called the Boston Society of Vulcans.
“The city has been ‘in the process’ of recruiting more veterans of color for over 10 years,’’ he said. “The cadet program is one part to several solutions that we proposed in a letter to the mayor and commissioner that can make immediate gains and none of them oppose veterans’ preference.”