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City firehouses still stuck in a racial divide

37 years after a court decree forced minority hiring, many units and firehouses are starkly and increasingly segregated. Old rules and city inaction have put hard-won diversity gains in peril

By Danielle Ossher, Courtney Brooks, and Walter V. Robinson
Globe Correspondents / August 1, 2010

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They do the same job, serving the same Boston neighborhood. But the firefighters who man the two engine companies — less than a mile apart in Charlestown — are racial opposites: All but one of the 20 firefighters on Engine 50 are white, while all but one of the 19 firefighters on Engine 32 are black or Hispanic.

The same checkerboard pattern can be seen in pockets across the city, including Engine 3 in the South End, where all of the 19 firefighters are white, and at the Cleary Square fire station in Hyde Park, where 38 of the 41 firefighters are minorities.

Thirty-seven years after a federal court forced the virtually all-white Boston Fire Department to hire one black or Hispanic firefighter for every new white employee, the department — overall — more closely resembles the multiracial city it serves: One third of Boston’s firefighters are nonwhite.

But on-the-job diversity eludes the department. Many of its individual units have become increasingly segregated by race, as both white and minority firefighters choose to work alongside their own as part of a seniority system that gives veterans great leeway to decide where they serve. Almost half of Boston’s firehouses are now either more than 85 percent white or more than 50 percent nonwhite, according to a months-long Globe review of fire department personnel and assignment records.

White firefighters disproportionately staff Boston’s busiest engine and ladder compa nies, which are generally considered the most prestigious postings and offer the most experience to ambitious young firefighters. In contrast, most of the least busy fire companies are overwhelmingly nonwhite, according to extensive records the department provided in response to a public records request.

For example, the city’s five busiest units — based on the number of runs — are 78 percent white, while 72 percent of the firefighters assigned to the city’s five least busy units are nonwhite.

The lack of diversity in individual units underscores the department’s often bedeviled attempts to achieve any real measure of racial equality. In fact, the Globe review found that the substantial minority gains achieved through the court order will soon begin to disappear. Nearly 90 percent of firefighters hired since the consent decree ended in 2003 are white. And minority firefighters operate under a glass ceiling: Of the department’s 72 high-ranking officers, 69 are white.

Fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr. expressed discomfort with the increasing segregation of many units and unhappiness with the reason he cites as the major cause: “You don’t go where you don’t feel welcome, where you don’t feel comfortable. That’s a fact of life everywhere, not just in the Boston Fire Department,’’ Fraser said.

But headquarters has received no complaints about the racial composition of the fire units, Fraser said. And even the leader of the department’s black firefighter organization said it has been largely a self-imposed solution to lingering tensions.

“If a firefighter of color has a problem working in a prominent company, he just transfers to a less busy company that has more people of color,’’ said Lieutenant Rayshawn Johnson, president of the Boston Society of Vulcans. “That’s been the remedy. It’s done quietly — underground.’’

This holds true for white firefighters as much as it does for minority firefighters, according to department employees who agreed to discuss this issue.

“Is it on both sides? Yes, absolutely, it is,’’ said Firefighter Kenneth T. Gibson, a 10-year veteran who is black. “Can white guys be made to feel uncomfortable in a largely nonwhite firehouse? Yes. It goes both ways.’’

Gibson added: “Is the department racially divided? Of course it is. Is it deliberate racism? You cannot say yes with 100 percent certainty. It’s the traditional old-boy, ingrained culture. The only way to change it is from the very top.’’

Mark S. Brodin, an employment discrimination specialist at Boston College Law School, said he finds it “very disappointing’’ that many of the department’s units have become sorted by race, a development that he said could not have been envisioned by the federal court or the civil rights lawyers whose lawsuit led to the consent decree.

Brodin noted that firefighters live together in firehouses, often in 24-hour shifts. If the department has “allowed the creation of segregated housing,’’ he said, “that should not be acceptable in any public agency.’’

Brodin said the fire department may be in violation of civil rights statutes if it takes no action to change working conditions that make it intolerable for minority firefighters to share shifts with their white colleagues.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino declined to be interviewed. On Friday, his spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, said Menino believes Fraser is “proactively’’ seeking to diversify the department’s ranks.

Asked whether the mayor was uncomfortable or bothered by the racial clustering within the department, Joyce said: “Not especially. Because it’s happened by self-selection, it’s hard for him to have a position on it.’’ What bothers Menino, she said, is that “the fire department is not as diverse as it needs to be.’’

Within the fire department, few people will discuss race openly. Indeed, the Globe interviewed more than two dozen firefighters who declined to discuss the issue or refused to talk about it without assurances that their names would not be used.

Fire Chief Ronald Keating, the department’s top uniformed official, acknowledged that segregation within units has increased in the last five years. But he said ironclad seniority rules leave managers all but helpless to halt or reverse the trend. Firefighters have the right to use their seniority to claim open slots in any unit.

“Is it good for the department? No,’’ Keating said. “We should be seeking diversity in every unit . . . Can you change it? Not very easily.’’ Keating said he could diversify any unit, but such a change could easily be undone in two years time by seniority-based transfers.

A decades-old “legacy’’ policy has also accelerated the racial imbalance, the Globe review found, by allowing new firefighters with relatives in the department to choose their assignment, often with the busiest and most elite units. A large percentage of new white firefighters have relatives who are firefighters.

The Globe reviewed the assignment of 47 new firefighters assigned since 2003 to five of the city’s busiest engine and ladder companies. All 47 are white.

Fraser, a former naval officer who took over the long-troubled department in 2006, said he would review that practice, and consider assigning new recruits in ways that promote rather than dilute diversity.

Meanwhile, the diversity gains made during 30 years of court oversight are beginning to ebb away. In 2003, the US District Court declared an end to a consent decree that had required that one nonwhite be hired for each new white firefighter. In the seven years since, the fire department has hired 313 new firefighters — about 21 percent of its firefighting force. And 88 percent of them are white.

The reason that the department’s overall percentage of minorities has not yet taken a nosedive is because 77 percent of retirees since 2003 have also been white. But that is about to change, as black and Hispanic firefighters who were hired in the mid ’70s begin to retire in large numbers.

Unlike the police department, the fire department has not taken advantage of exemptions in civil service laws that encourage the hiring of women for gender reasons or minority applicants who are bilingual.

The police department, which was under a court-mandated minority hiring decree of its own until 2004, has used those exemptions and a noticeably more aggressive marketing and recruiting effort aimed at minority candidates to maintain its racial diversity. As a result, a third of new police officers hired since 2004 are nonwhite.

During a lengthy interview, Fraser said he would also reconsider taking steps the department has rejected in the past — hiring bilingual firefighters as well as more women. Just 1 percent of Boston’s firefighters are women — well below the national average.

Fraser said, however, that there are legal limitations on what he can do. For instance, the civil service examination gives preference to veterans; in Massachusetts, the vast majority of veterans are white.

He also cited a state law that requires the department to give first priority to hiring firefighters who have been laid off from other Massachusetts departments — applicants who are almost all white.

“There is no downside to diversity in the fire department,’’ Fraser said. “People in the community want to see people like themselves. They are more comfortable if they see firefighters who reflect the community at large showing up at the scenes of fires.’’

Fraser’s diversity hopes, however, collide with reality in many neighborhoods. On Dudley Street in Roxbury, for example, 39 of the 46 firefighters assigned to Engine 14 and Ladder 4 are white, in a neighborhood where few whites reside.

That firehouse, along with several others in minority neighborhoods, is so disconnected from the minority community it serves, said Lieutenant Darrell Higginbottom, the first vice president of the Vulcans, that its doors are almost always closed — in stark contrast to neighborhoods where the engine bay doors remain open and firefighters chat with passersby.

“It’s called Fort Dudley,’’ said Higginbottom.

Disproportionately white firehouses cover most of Boston’s minority communities, including Roxbury and Dorchester. But white-dominated units are also in the Back Bay, downtown, and South Boston. In contrast, units that are disproportionately nonwhite are located mostly on the city’s outer fringes, especially Brighton and Hyde Park.

The department’s slowest firehouse, Engine 49 in the predominantly white Readville section of Hyde Park not far from the Dedham line, has just three whites among its 18 firefighters.

Aside from its traditional firehouses, the department has other units that are racially isolated. On the Boston waterfront, for example, the Marine Unit and its fireboats have 18 firefighters; every one of them white. And the first encounter that new recruits have with the department is at the Fire Academy. Its 14-member staff has just one nonwhite.

The incidence of overt racial incidents has diminished in recent years, by all accounts. Even so, minority firefighters say underlying racial animus remains in too many of the department’s units.

Johnson, the president of the black firefighter organization, and others said minority firefighters often forgo their seniority rights to claim open positions in some predominantly white and busy fire companies because they either know or fear they will not be welcome.

Both Johnson and Higginbottom are officers in the Cleary Square Hyde Park firehouse that has just three whites among its 41 firefighters. Among the disproportionately minority firehouses, it is the second busiest.

Both men are lieutenants. But as they look ahead, they see little opportunity to make it to the top. Virtually every ranking firefighter is white: Chief Keating, all 17 deputy chiefs, and 52 of the 55 district fire chiefs. The deputy and district chiefs were all promoted as a result of their scores on civil service exams. To Brodin and other civil rights lawyers, the use of civil service tests exclusively for both entry and promotion makes little sense in that they bear almost no relation to actual job performance.

But even when civil service is not a factor, tradition trumps the potential for diversity in the fire department.

While other major cities routinely conduct a nationwide search for the fire chief, the Boston department routinely promotes from within, from a pool of white deputy chiefs.

For his part, the commissioner has ordered department-wide diversity training, which is in the planning stages, a decision Fraser made before the Globe inquiries began. Such training was last held in 2007, and then only for commanders.

In 2000, the O’Toole Commission, which studied the department’s myriad problems, concluded that much more needed to be done: “This failure by the department to address properly such important issues as race and diversity cannot be allowed to continue.’’

The commission’s exhortation, Fraser acknowledged, has yet to be fully satisfied. “Do we have diversity issues in our department? Sure we do. And we’re trying to work on that.’’

In addition to Danielle Ossher and Courtney Brooks, this article was reported by Bret Silverberg, Chelsea Reil, Lauren McShane, Peter Martin, Rachel Kossman, and Sarrah Benoit for a seminar in investigative reporting at Northeastern University. Their work was overseen and this article was edited by Northeastern journalism professor Walter V. Robinson, former editor of the Globe Spotlight Team. Robinson can be reached at wrobinson@globe.com. Confidential messages can be left at 617-929-3334.

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