A Montgomery County Council member today plans to propose spending $200,000 to bolster recruitment of minority firefighters and to pay for a review of the firefighters test to determine whether it gives unfair advantage to white applicants.
The proposal follows revelations last week that the county's current class of firefighter recruits has fewer minorities than any class since at least 1988.
Council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), the resolution's sponsor, said, "I want this to be the only recruit class . . . to have this lack of diversity."
The class of recruits that started training this month is 89 percent white -- the highest proportion of whites since the county took over hiring from volunteer fire companies in 1988.
The recruit class's disparity with the county's population -- 60 percent white -- elicited strong criticism from elected officials and community leaders.
County officials have blamed the drop in minority recruits on the fact that the county last year instituted a race-blind hiring process after county attorneys expressed concerns that the race-conscious hiring process was unconstitutional.
Two other Maryland jurisdictions have been criticized this year for low minority recruitment rates. This year, Baltimore hired its first all-white class of firefighter recruits in 50 years.
And this month, an Annapolis task force criticized that city's fire department for not showing a "meaningful commitment" to recruiting minorities.
Perez said he wants the Montgomery County Council to review and approve the proposal faster than it normally handles such appropriations.
The county's Division of Fire and Rescue Services plans to train three recruit classes, including the current group, by July 2005.
Officials have said training delays could cause severe staffing shortages.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) has ordered that the next recruit class, scheduled to begin this fall, be put on hold if necessary to increase the number of minority candidates.
"We're not going to start the next class until we've done a comprehensive review of the hiring process," Duncan said.
Officials have said they may replace the written firefighter aptitude test with one that affords greater opportunity to minorities.
The current test may skew toward applicants who have previous volunteer firefighting experience, officials said. In Montgomery, that means a largely white pool of applicants.
Perez said some tests also factor in an applicant's response to stressful situations, ability to interact with diverse communities and facility with foreign languages.
"Devising an application process that is fair to everybody, is constitutional and complies with civil rights laws is extraordinarily challenging, but it can be done," he said.
The County Council last month approved a $3.3 million operating budget for the county for the coming year.
It was the largest operating budget the county has ever approved.
Perez's proposed allocation would come from money set aside to handle emergencies.