Figures released recently by Montgomery County officials show that the initial pool of 898 applicants for firefighting positions this year was almost as diverse as the county's population, while the 46 hired in June as recruits were almost entirely white.
The numbers, provided at the request of The Washington Post, show that the bulk of minority applicants fell out of consideration when officials decided who among candidates who passed a written examination would be interviewed.
Of the 46 people hired as recruits, 94 percent were white. One African American and two Latinos were hired. The class has fewer minorities than any recruit class since at least 1988, when county officials began keeping records on race.
The lack of minority firefighter recruits in an increasingly diverse county prompted criticism from several County Council members and others, and county officials pledged significant changes in the firefighter hiring process.
County officials said this week that they plan to interview candidates who passed the written examination earlier this year but were later overlooked.
Last month the County Council approved an emergency appropriation of $200,000 to bolster recruitment efforts. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) has also ordered fire officials to review the written exam.
Joe Adler, Montgomery director of human resources, said the county will spend $35,000 on a new written examination. Another change, he said, is that the county staff will interview everyone who passes the written exam rather than select a handful of those who passed, as it did this year.
Relatively high percentages of African Americans and Latinos passed the written test -- 53.4 percent and 76.9 percent, respectively, compared with 87.5 percent of white candidates -- but when officials selected candidates to be interviewed, the percentages dropped. Of the 31 African Americans who passed the test, three -- or 9.7 percent -- advanced to the interview stage. Of the 20 Latinos who passed the test, 14 -- or 70 percent -- were interviewed.
Of the 343 whites who passed the test, 132 were interviewed.
Of the 898 applicants for firefighter jobs, 72 percent were white; 13.5 percent, African-American; 4.2 percent, Latino; 2.2 percent, Asian; 1.2 percent, Native American; and 7.1 percent whose race was not indicated, county figures show.
According county planning department estimates last year, Montgomery's population of 931,000 is 60 percent white, 14 percent black, 12 percent Asian, 11 percent Latino and the remainder "other."
About 25 percent of the department's 961 fire and rescue employees are minorities, according to county figures. Data from previous recruit classes show the county has aggressively hired minority firefighters.
County officials attribute the drop in minority recruits to recent changes in the fire and rescue services' hiring process that stemmed from county attorneys' concern that race-conscious hiring might be unconstitutional.
Officials from the county's Human Resources Department and the fire and rescue services are meeting to discuss changes in the recruitment process, said Duncan spokesman David Weaver. Also, a recruiter position that had been vacant for more than a year is now filled, officials said.
"It's going to take some work, as you can see from the numbers," Weaver said of the effort to revamp the hiring process. "The original applicant pool was fairly diverse . . . and there was still considerable diversity after taking the test. Where we really dropped off was in the interview process."
On July 13, the council unanimously approved the emergency $200,000 increase in the fire and rescue services budget to hire a recruiter, in addition to paying for the review of the department's written exam.
Duncan and his top officials objected to the funding increase, saying it was not necessary and they could improve recruitment without it. However, Duncan does not plan to veto the measure, Weaver said.
Council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) called the money "essential" to immediately bolster minority recruitment, but he also said the money should be used for longer-term goals.
"In the long run, some of this money has to be invested in sustained outreach," Perez said. "It can't be a one-shot intervention; it's about building long-term relationships in communities."
Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg), chairman of the council's public safety committee, said the fire and rescue service needed additional money because the department's budget was already "very tight."
"I think their judgment was wrong that they could [bolster recruitment] with the resources at hand," Andrews said. "No one saw any place where money could be taken from. Anywhere they took money from would cut into muscle."