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Veterans bridle at Fire Dept. hiring plan

They challenge the city’s effort to add 15 Spanish-speakers to the department

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / April 30, 2011

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For the first time, the Boston Fire Department has won state approval to hire 15 Spanish-speakers in its next class of 50 firefighters, allowing administrators to move applicants with language skills to the top of the civil service list.

But a group of military veterans, normally given preference for the jobs, has challenged the decision. Alleging in legal documents that the bilingual requirement is being used to “recruit people of color into the uniformed ranks,’’ the veterans have asked the state Civil Service Commission to investigate.

The veterans, all of them white, are seeking jobs in a department that has struggled for decades with diversity in a city that is now more than 50 percent minority.

State law gives preference for civil service hiring to veterans and the children of police or firefighters killed in the line of duty. To target candidates by gender or language skill, a department must apply for an exemption to the state Human Resources Division and explain the need.

Police have long used the technique to target candidates. In June 2009, for example, the city department hired 27 women to work with sexual assault victims and 15 officers who speak Cape Verdean or Hai tian Creole.

The Fire Department currently has 60 Spanish speakers on a payroll of almost 1,600 just under 4 percent. Firefighters respond to an estimated 10,080 incidents each year in homes where Spanish is the primary language, according to the city.

“We need people who can speak Spanish in Hispanic neighborhoods,’’ said Fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr., a Navy veteran. “We’re not refusing to hire veterans. The majority of runs — over 45 percent of our responses — are emergency medical calls. You need to be able to talk to the people about what’s wrong when you show up on scene.’’

All applicants must still pass the written and physical portions of the civil service exam. The language preference does not require that the new hires be Latino or of any other ethnicity or race. The top Spanish-speaking candidate is a white man who is the son of a district fire chief, Fraser said. Also among the Spanish-speakers on the hire list, obtained by the Globe, are six veterans, some of them with surnames that don’t suggest Latin descent.

The case was brought by eight veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of whom were injured in the line of duty, but are still physically able to perform the rigors of the firefighter’s job, and scored high on the civil service exam. Some may still get one of the 35 regular slots at the fire academy, but their attorneys argue that they should all be at the head of the line.

“These guys are by and large a group of disabled veterans who went to war for their country and thought they had statutory preference for the job,’’ said attorney Timothy L. Belcher. “What the department has done is really changed the rules on them. If they had known that the language skills are going to be valued, they could have learned the language.’’

The five-member Civil Service Commission will consider the allegation over the next month and then decide whether to launch a formal inquiry, said Christopher C. Bowman, the commission’s chairman. Any investigation would probably take several months.

Other exceptions to civil service have come at the behest of elected officials. In 2007, a special state law vaulted William and Marc Hayhurst to the top of the list, past military veterans. The Hayhursts received special consideration, the Globe reported, because of political connections. At the time, the move drew criticism from a group representing minority firefighters but not veterans groups.

Documents filed in this fight show that one of the plaintiffs’ key pieces of evidence is testimony that Fraser gave in February to the City Council when he was asked to explain why 68 percent of Boston’s firefighters were white.

“Can you explain why this great disparity exists in these categories in 2011?’’ asked City Councilor Charles C. Yancey in a video of the hearing.

Fraser’s response: “We are a little limited in what we can do because of civil service law. But for the class we intend to hire this year, we’ve asked for a Spanish-speaking bilingual list and a women list for this next class.’’

The state rejected the Fire Department’s request to give hiring preference to 10 women. It asked for more information about why the department needed Spanish speakers and ultimately approved the request earlier this year.

Asked yesterday about that testimony, Fraser said, “We’re not asking for Hispanic people. We’re asking for people who can speak Spanish.’’

Long before Fraser became commissioner, the Boston Fire Department struggled with diversity. For almost 40 years, a federal court forced it to hire one black or Hispanic firefighter for every new white employee.

The court decree ended in 2003. A Globe review last year found that since then, the Fire Department has hired 313 new firefighters — 88 percent of them white. The department is expected to become increasingly white as black and Hispanic firefighters who were hired in the mid ’70s begin to retire in large numbers.

“As a matter of principle, it’s great to diversify the department,’’ Belcher said. “The problem is that the department failed to solve it at the front end and they are now trying to patch it on the back end.’’

Firefighter Dan Magoon, an Army veteran who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been advocating for the veterans. Magoon works in Uphams Corner, where he encounters speakers of Vietnamese, Polish, and a host of other languages.

“It’s not really an issue where we are having problems . . . dealing with residents,’’ said Magoon, commander of Boston’s Military Veterans Legion/Fireman’s Post 94. “It’s an issue of these guys and girls come home and they deserve these jobs.’’

In Boston, about 87,000 people speak Spanish, according to the city, and that population continues to grow, especially in East Boston, Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain.

“Rod Fraser served for more than 20 years in the US Navy and understands what it means to be a veteran,’’ said Jennifer Mehigan, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “Having more Spanish-speaking firefighters on our streets is one way we can better serve the residents of our neighborhoods. This is simply about better serving our residents.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.