The Norwich Fire Department is mostly white, too

To check on reports I heard recently that Norwich has a mostly white paid fire department, I made a few calls last week, to the city's fire chief, to the city's director of human resources and to the mayor.

I first left a message for Fire Chief Kenneth Scandariato and never heard back from him.

Then I got through to Brigid Marks, the city's director of human resources, and told her I was trying to find out the number of minority firefighters in the city. At first she said she couldn't say, then she suggested she could research it and get back to me in a day.

She took my number and said she would call me.

That was midweek. My next call, later that day, was to Mayor Peter Nystrom, whom I reached on his cellphone.

Nystrom also said he didn't know anything about the racial makeup of the fire department. He said he would call Marks and have her expedite her research into the question, and he would get back to me.

And then Norwich went silent.

I never heard back from the chief or Marks or the mayor. I called and left new messages Monday, and still never heard a peep. I left a message, too, for City Manager Alan Bergren, saying I was calling about the fire department, and never heard back.

No one, it seems, in Norwich officialdom wants to talk about the racial makeup of the city fire department.

No wonder.

Even in a state with a lot of fire departments not very well integrated, Norwich and New London stand out as about the worst, according to Gary Tinney, a New Haven firefighter and president of the New Haven Firebird Society, part of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters.

Tinney said he believes there might only be one or two black firefighters in Norwich, with the last being hired in the late 1980s.

Of course, I don't know the actual number because city officials evidently have decided not to disclose it.

In New London, the first black firefighter hired in more than 30 years, Alfred Mayo, was fired in December by Mayor Daryl Finizio, acting on the advice of longtime fire Chief Ronald Samul. Mayo was fired two days before he was to graduate from the state firefighting academy, where, as the only black in his class, he had average grades, well above passing.

I also had a chance to speak recently to another black firefighter, one who now works for the Hartford fire department, who told me that he, like Mayo, was fired while he was still attending the fire academy, one of the only minorities in his class.

It was the Norwich fire chief who fired him, apparently after learning from an academy instructor that the recruit was planning to take a written exam to try to get into the Hartford department, while being trained by the Norwich department.

The Hartford firefighter told me he thought he was going to be the second black firefighter in Norwich before the chief fired him. He ended up working for another department for a while, before finally landing a job in Hartford.

I was going to ask Norwich Chief Scandariato about firing the black recruit at the firefighting academy, had he called me back. I was also going to ask him what he's done in the few years since then, to hire other minority firefighters.

But he didn't call.

I wish that the problem of integrating white fire departments was unique to New London and Norwich.

But it doesn't take much research to find stories about all kinds of similar situations around the country.

In Baltimore, the U.S. Department of Justice was asked last fall by a group of black firefighters to investigate systemic discrimination in hiring, discipline and recruitment.

Just recently in Houston, a federal judge approved a settlement of claims that promotion exams in the fire department there violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In New York City, a federal judge recently ruled that the city fire department intentionally discriminated against minorities in hiring.

And in Chicago last summer, the city was ordered to hire some 111 bypassed black firefighters and pay some $30 million in damages to black firefighting candidates who said they were discriminated against.

Court orders, justice department investigations and damage settlements are all surely coming this way, where two large municipal departments, in cities with big minority populations, have almost all white firefighting forces.

No wonder no one in Norwich wants to talk about it.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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