Austin Fire Department sees its most diverse candidate pool ever, but there’s more work to do

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — This year, the Austin Fire Department said it has gotten a 10% increase in interested African Americans compared to 2019.

Its largest demographic group is Hispanic candidates — a more than 21% increase.

Overall, nearly 75% of people who submitted a cadet interest card are diversity targets, which means they belong to a minority group.

That includes Black, Hispanic, Asian and female Austinites.

“We never had that number before,” said Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker. “I think the highest we have had in the history of Austin of minorities that have shown interest is 59-point-something.”

He hopes diversity on the front end of hiring will also help down the line, so there are more of those people to promote to higher positions.

Data provided by the AFD Recruiting Section on Tuesday shows an increase in "targeted" cadet interest cards, meaning interest cards from minority groups.
Data provided by the AFD Recruiting Section on Tuesday shows an increase in “targeted” cadet interest cards, meaning interest cards from minority groups.

After expressing their interest through a cadet interest card, candidates then have to submit an application.

Baker said fewer people have done that so far, but even among those, nearly 71% are “the target.” Applications are open until Friday at 4 p.m.

These are numbers that Blair Campbell, president of the Austin African American Firefighters Association, is happy to see.

“I was the only African American in my class,” said the former firefighter of 32 years, who attended the academy in 1988.

Campbell recognizes the importance of diversity in the department.

“If any little kid walks up and looks into a fire truck, they can see someone who looks like them who they can aspire to be like someday,” he said.

Chief Baker said his recruiting team partnered with organizations like The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and The League of United Latin American Citizens to make it happen.

In 2019, he also got rid of an application requirement of 15 college credits, because he saw it as a barrier.

“I do believe in education, but I don’t… see a need to have it for entry-level employment to be a firefighter,” Baker said.

He also added the department has a written and oral exam during the hiring process that can assess the aptitude of a candidate.

Now, the department is linking with the Austin Firefighters Association to conduct a new study. They will review that written exam as well as other steps of the hiring process.

“In order to get great diversity, everything has to run right. You have to have good recruiting, good selection procedures and all the disqualifiers and psychological checks need to be appropriate,” said Bob Nicks, Austin Firefighters Association president.

The goal is to find out if AFD’s hiring policies disproportionately impact people of color.

“If it is, that should inform us to analyze further if we can make change to that process to get more diversity in the department,” Nicks said.

As an example, Nicks points to one current applicant of color he knows who ran from the police when he was 16 years old and got caught.

“I think he was out past a curfew or something. So technically, he’s got a Class A misdemeanor on his on his record. He would be disqualified from the process,” Nicks said. “That seems ridiculous, he’s 27 years old and he’s… in good shape, been through college and kept a clean record.”

Nicks said the study may show there is no disparate impact on people of color. But if it does and AFD changes some hiring policies, he doesn’t think it will lower the department’s standard of quality.

“It’s harder to get in the Austin Fire Department than it is to get into Harvard,” Nicks said.

“So, if we dial back our background checks… to a level that’s appropriate and comports well with modern social justice standards, I don’t think that changes the competitiveness in any real way,” he said.

All these steps in the hiring process determine who goes from an applicant to an actual firefighter.

Campbell said now that the recruiting team has done an “excellent” job finding minority candidates, it’s up to the rest of the department to make sure that diversity ratio applies to the graduating class.

“The ultimate number is how many firefighters you get out of the process,” Campbell said.

Baker said he hopes to complete the study of the department’s hiring process in the next two to three months. If disparity is identified and changes need to be made, he said they likely won’t apply to the current class of candidates, but next year’s hiring process.

Nicks hopes the study can be done sooner than that and any changes applied before this year’s selections are made.

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