Recent city hirees don't add to fire deparment's diversity

New London — Despite concern among city officials and residents that the department ought to resemble the diverse community it serves, six newly-hired firefighters began their assignments this week — and they are all white males.

The six young men, all of whom achieved top scores in the city’s rigorous, numerically graded application process, were sworn in at city hall last Friday after three weeks of on-the-job training, much of it during the OpSail festivities.

Out of the pool of 150 candidates who vied for positions within the department, only a handful were ethnic minorities or women, none of whom did particularly well during the application process, said city personnel coordinator, Dianna Lowther.

“The pool of people that came through was excellent,” said Lowther, “But we didn’t get a big pool of minorities and the ones we did get just didn’t do as well on the tests.”

There are now a total of 79 people in the fire department, 72 of whom fight fires. There are no women “on the line,” though there is a female fire inspector. There is only a handful of minorities.

The problem, say Lowther and New London Fire Chief Ronald Samul, is that minorities typically aren’t drawn to the profession, and those who are often do not have the credentials or high enough levels of education required for the job. In the case of the recent hires, the department was also looking for firefighters with previous experience.

“It’s a very big concern,” Lowther said of the difficulty in finding minority candidates. “In the firefighting department it’s very difficult in many cities, not just ours.”

“I feel fine as far as the guys that got hired, because they were excellent, excellent candidates, so I can’t place (minority) candidates ahead of people that are so far ahead of them,” Lowther said. “I want to put minorities in the department that are as qualified (as non-minorities), but I can’t make up the data.”

Lowther, who began as personnel coordinator in early 1999, said that when she first started her job, she was alarmed by the imbalance between non-minorities and minorities in many city departments, but she said, “the fire department was the weakest in terms of diversity.”

“The fire department is the main one, so we’re looking at a program to get minorities on an even keel, so they can compete,” Lowther said. “We’ve done a preliminary plan and we’ve brought the idea to council and they approved it for the new budget, so as of July 1, we have the dollars.”

Chief Samul, a 30-year-veteran of the department, said he is concerned about the lack of diversity and hopes the training programs will convince minorities, and more local people in general, to enter the firefighting profession.

“We think what we’re going to do is develop a program and build some incentives to help people prepare for these positions,” he said.

The personnel department received a $40,000 allotment from the council to start the training program that it hopes will attract more minorities into the department. The program, Lowther said, will happen “really soon.”

“We are on the same page as far as this is concerned,” said Lowther, referring to city and fire officials. “It’s just a question of getting there.”

The hiring procedure in the city’s fire department is based on points — those candidates with the highest scores are selected first. The process begins when the fire chief alerts the city’s personnel department of vacancies and it places ads locally announcing the openings. The personnel department then administers various tests to the pool of applicants and conducts an “application review” that includes looking at an extensive application form, resume and certain criteria and giving points based on a variety of elements in each. Each test is given a numerical score and averaged into a total. The top candidates are then passed on to the fire chief who interviews them along with other officials.

“The oral interview was the most excruciating ten minutes of my life,” explained New London native Jeremy Hynek, one of the recent hires. Hynek holds a bachelor’s degree in fire service administration and comes from a family of firefighters.

The candidates who “pass” the oral interview, which is also given a numerical score, then go on to background tests, which include physical and psychological examinations.

Barry Fuller Jr., of Waterford, who formerly worked for the Mohegan Tribal Fire Department, was the first of the new hires to get a formal assignment — to “Group 4.” He began work on Sunday.

“We’re waiting for a fire, but we’re also meeting a new group of guys in a department and we’re going to be thrown into a new situation together. And we’ll handle it,” said Fuller, who said he’s wanted to be a firefighter since he was a young boy.

“New London is growing and there’s a lot happening in this city,” added Fuller “I wanted to be a part of it.”

The other new hires are Reginald Hansen Jr. of East Lyme and Daniel Davis, Christopher Bunkley and Thomas Feliciano, all of Waterford.
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