IN LITTLE MORE than a decade, immigration has transformed the racial composition of Montgomery County and with it the expectations of its residents. As recently as the 1990 Census, 77 percent of Montgomery's inhabitants were white. Today that number has declined to 60 percent, while 14 percent are African American, 12 percent Asian and 11 percent Latino. That's why the makeup of the county's current crop of recruits for its Fire and Rescue Department has raised so many eyebrows. Of 46 recruits, 43 are white (including just two women). Of the remaining three, two are Hispanic and one is African American; there are no Asian recruits.
Firefighters and paramedics need not precisely duplicate the racial complexion of the county. Above all, they should be competent professionals. But a class of recruits that is almost entirely one race, in this case white, ought to draw a closer look, especially in a jurisdiction where a majority of residents are likely to be members of one or another minority group within a decade or so. Fire and rescue workers, as much as police, are the ubiquitous public face of any jurisdiction; they should bear some resemblance to the citizens they serve.
Montgomery officials don't dispute that. They note that their efforts to shape a more diverse fire and rescue department have paid off in recent years, largely by dividing applicants into "pools" designated by race to give minority candidates an explicit edge in hiring. But the department switched to a race-blind application process this year on the advice of the county's own lawyers, who were concerned that court rulings banning mechanistic preferences for minority applicants could expose the department to lawsuits. The department further undercut its own efforts to promote diversity by eliminating the lone recruiter from the payroll to save money.
The resulting distortions are disturbing. Despite the county's booming Asian and Latino populations, only a relative handful could be found to take the written test required of all applicants. That seems to speak to the absence of a recruiter. For African American applicants, there was a different problem: Thirty-one of them passed the written test, but only three made the next cut and were granted an interview, apparently because the department screened out candidates without experience as paramedics, as emergency medical technicians or in emergency communications. As it turns out, many applicants who do have that experience come from the county's ranks of volunteer firefighters, a traditional bastion of white males that is often staffed by the sons and grandsons of former volunteers and that some regard as cliquish.
What to do now? The department has restored a full-time recruiter to the payroll -- an African American paramedic with experience in the field and as a recruiter -- and plans to solicit more minority applicants by advertising in their communities. It is reevaluating the written test for recruits, with an eye to increasing the emphasis on non-cognitive factors such as common sense, judgment and conflict management abilities. And starting with the next class of recruits, the department plans to look more closely at candidates with backgrounds in the military or trades, or with a history of working with diverse communities.
Those steps should produce some progress toward a more diverse class of qualified recruits. Overall, as The Post's David Snyder reported, the makeup of the department's 961 uniformed employees resembles Montgomery's racial profile of 15 years ago. Command-level positions remain dominated by white men. The department had better accelerate its efforts to play catch-up if it is to keep pace with a fast-changing county.