The class of firefighter recruits that began training in Montgomery County this month has just one black and two Latino members, the lowest number of minorities since the county began keeping records on race in 1988.
Forty-one of the 46 class members, or 89 percent, are white men, and for the first time in six years, there is just one African American enrolled. The others in the class are women.
The county took control of the hiring process in 1988 after widespread criticism that volunteer fire companies had closed off opportunities for minorities, even as the county was rapidly becoming more ethnically diverse and as county officials were proclaiming their commitment to hiring a diverse workforce.
The fire department, which also had come under criticism in the past for having an exclusively white command staff, substantially increased minority recruitment in recent years, records show.
County officials said the trend toward greater diversity was reversed by adoption of a new race-blind application process. That approach was implemented this year after county attorneys became worried that putting applicants in "pools" designated by race would run afoul of court rulings prohibiting use of race as an overriding factor in hiring, officials said.
At the same time that the policy was changed, the county cut a recruiter from the payroll and eliminated much of the recruitment budget. The vast majority of applicants for the current training class were white, officials said. They did not provide precise percentages.
The result has been a class that almost resembles the county's demographics in 1950, when 93 percent of county residents were white.
According to 2003 estimates, Montgomery's population of 931,000 is 60 percent white, 14 percent black, 12 percent Asian and 11 percent Latino.
"It's miserable," said Ricardo Shepherd, president of a coalition of black firefighters in Montgomery. "There's a breakdown in recruiting. There's a breakdown in the selection process."
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) this week ordered fire officials to reevaluate the next class of recruits, which is scheduled to start training this fall, and to consider changing the written aptitude tests for firefighter applicants.
"It's a huge concern," Duncan said of this year's class. "We've been working very hard to expand the diversity of the organization."
"It's not a matter of our commitment" to minority recruitment, Fire Administrator Gordon Aoyagi said. "We're fully committed to maintaining as diverse a workforce as possible. Our desire, of course, is to be reflective of the community we serve."
The department's most recent figures show that of the 961 uniformed fire and rescue employees, 77 percent are white; 14.8 percent are black; 5.1 percent are Latino; 1.8 percent are Asian; and 1.7 percent are Native American
Command-level positions are still dominated by white men. The highest-ranking blacks in the department are captains. Blacks hold seven of the 118 captain's positions. All those who hold the four ranks above captain -- battalion chief, assistant chief, deputy chief and chief -- are white.
The county's fire department was slower than many in the Washington area to begin aggressively recruiting minorities. Many departments began doing so in the 1960s and 1970s. Until 1988, volunteer fire companies oversaw hiring in Montgomery. Minority recruitment increased considerably when the county government took control of hiring that year.
Two fire and rescue training classes -- those in 1998 and 2000 -- had lower percentages of minorities than this year's. But both of those classes were for new hires with prior experience, offered a truncated training schedule and were smaller than general recruit classes.
Since 1988, of the 19 general recruit classes -- those composed of new hires with little or no experience -- this year's class has the lowest proportion of minorities. The next lowest, in 1998, had twice the proportion of minorities. County officials could not produce statistics for classes before 1988. They said that because the county's 19 individual volunteer fire companies oversaw hiring, the county did not keep statistics.
County Council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) called the current class's makeup "unacceptable."
The fire and rescue service "is about prevention and education, and prevention and education can only be done effectively if you're out in the community and if you earn the trust of the community," Perez said. "That is why it's important to have a fire and rescue service that mirrors the diversity of the community."
Shepherd said this year's recruit class is of particular concern for minority firefighters because it suggests that the pipeline of minority recruits is closing down. Without fresh recruits each year, the likelihood that minorities will reach the higher ranks of the department dims, Shepherd said.
"This is really a step back," Shepherd said. "We had kind of figured we're past this. We were more concerned about moving on and working on people getting promotions."