In 1972, the Fairfax firefighters' union approached Roscoe Hamby Jr. Could he do anything, union members wanted to know, about its low minority representation.
Hamby, a former organizer of apprentice trade programs in his native Nashville, moved with the speed of a man obsessed.
"I organized a staff and trained them. We got 14 minority persons hired (in Fairfax) that year," he said.
In 1978, Hamby organized another five-month program resulting in 68 minority graduates being hired in Fairfax and 92 being placed on the waiting list.
Last month, Hamby, administrator for the Labor Recruitment Program (LRP) of the International Association of Firefighters, took another stride in helping inner-city residents find work in suburban Fairfax: a permanent recruitment office was opened at 14th street and Rhode Island Avenue NW.
"Our techniques get better and better," said Hamby, grinning.
Project coordinator Karen Patterson, who operates the new office on 14th Street, agrees: "Folks drop in, get chummy and before you know it, we've signed them up."
The Labor Recruitment Program was begun by the firefighters' international association following the attacks on firefighters during riots in the '60s. The union, under a contract with the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration, launched a minority recruitment program in 10 cities. The LRP tutors and counsels minority applicants on testing procedures for positions as firefighters, police officers and trade apprentices.
For Fairfax County, which has a minority population of 4.3 percent, the program provides "our biggest source for minority hiring," said George Alexandria, director of the county's fire and rescue services.
Minorities now hold 101 of the 700 available jobs in the county's firefighting force. Of those, 73 were LRP graduates, according to Marie Sloan, executive director of program operations and planning for LRP.
Cornelius O'Kane, Fairfax County acting personnel director, calls the program "absolutely superlative." At one testing site, O'Kane said, the LRP was responsible for a car caravan of of 150 applicants that "descended on us."
With the opening of the 14th Street office, the LRP staff reaches even more recruits. Project coordinator Patterson, with a full-time instructor-counselor, a full-time receptionist-counselor and a secretary, are working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week to prepare 150 applicants for two upcoming firefighter exams.
The program is being funded at $100,000 for its first 12 month in operation.
If a recruit does not have transportation to Fairfax for an examination Patterson and her staff arrange it.
The Labor Recruitment office has two floors. The bottom floor is used for interviewing and counseling; the top for oral and written testing and for physical agility tests.
To be hired as a firefighter, a recruit must successfully pass through a four-phase program: a written exam, an oral interview, a physical agility test and a medical examination. To fail one of these four is to fail all.
Reading comprehension and retention, the understanding of fire-related terms and the ability to hold a water-spewing fire hose that may weight 100 pounds are some of the areas in which the program prepares its recruits.
In the classroom, recruits are given mock tests which stress mathematics and direction-following. Recruits must hold 50-and 100-pound weights for three minutes or more to test their strength and endurance.
One recruit at a recent session was Susie William, 22, who attends classes three times a week.
"I feel like a minority among minorities down here on Fourteenth Street," she said. "This is a new, and scary, feeling for me."
Williams has worked as a paramedic at a volunteer fire department in Fairfax for two years. She said she has tried the regular route of seeking employment, but found that applicants can wait up to two years before being called. Firefighter friends told her that LRP recruits get called faster.
"So here I am," she said.
Eric Walker, an LRP graduate, has been working for 17 weeks at Annandale Company No. 8. Walker, who lives in Northeast Washington with his wife and infant son, said he has wanted to be a firefighter since he was in the eighth grade.
To show his appreciation, he has volunteered his services to instruct LRP recruits on his days and nights off.
The success of the LRP in providing Fairfax County with firefighters prompted O'Kane to ask for LRP recruits tutored in other occupations.
Hamby was glad to oblige. "The more people we can put to work, the merrier," he said. LRP now instructs recruits on police examination procedures and the testing procedures for apprenticeships in plumbing, carpentry and painting.
Hamby, who is black, is aware that the 175,000-member firefighters' union is 98 percent white. But he defends what he refers to as the union commitment to admit more minorities into its ranks.
"This program has opened up and spilled over into other job areas because of this commitment," he said.
Assistant Secretary of Labor Ernest Green praised Hamby: "His personal efforts got all the support that was needed."