Fourteen white Prince George's County firefighter trainees have been told they are being dismissed and replaced by blacks because of an "administrative error" that resulted in an entirely white class of recruits.
The men were part of a class of 22, selected by a merit examination from a long waiting list. The eight men who scored highest on the exam are being allowed to remain. The others - who had completed nearly four weeks of a 14-weeks training course - have been dismissed and offered jobs as fail guards.
"It's the county's mistake," said County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. "I'm ultimately responsible. It was a question of correcting the error as quickly as possible or compounding it by letting it continue and take the criticism."
In a meeting with officials of Firefighter Union Local 1619 yesterday, Kelly reportedly offered to give the 14 men first preference in the next entering class, which could be a year or two away.
"They just messed up 14 lives," said Ralph Cribbs, 26, who said he left a hospital security job in Mercerville, N.J., to realize his longtime ambition to be a fireman. Others in the group told similar stories of faraway jobs and homes left for the opportunity to become a Prince George's firefighter.
Prince George's County is 25 per cent black while the fire department is overwhelmingly white.
The "administrative error" was discovered about a week ago, Kelly said. It was revealed to the men abruptly Tuesday afternoon at what they expected to be a "welcome aboard" session with top departmental officials.
Donald Weinberg the county's personnel director, delivered the bad news to the men and yesterday spent several hours trying to persuade them to take Corrections Department jobs at comparable pay.
The way Weinberg explained it later, the formation of the all-white class occurred amid a "situation where there was so much movement and different placements" within the department that nobody noticed until it was too late.
The movement, he said, was related to the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA), a federally-funded program under which unemployed, mainly minority persons, are hired by the county. The law, Weinberg said, requires that the county make every effort to eventually place these CETA employees on the local government payroll.
Through CETA grants, he said, the proportion of uniformed black firemen in, Prince George's County has risen in less than two years from 4 per cent to 9 per cent of a total 344 firefighters.
Except for two special CETA classes, the one now being reconstituted is the first in two years for the Prince George's Fire Department, Weinberg said. The county's current plan is to put eight trained CETA firefighter on its regular payroll and to hire seven new CETA workers for the revamped 15-member training class.
"This will never happen again in Prince George's County," County Executive Kelly said of the entire situation.
How do such personnel maneuvers square with the county's merit system? "You square it as much as you can with your efforts to provide equal access to the fire department," said John Lally, a close aide to Kelly.
While the county officials were openly admitting their mistake and defending their action, the 14 men whose career aspirations had just been shattered gathered glumly in the County Administration Building cafeteria."
"I waited one-and-one-half years to get in this fire department," said Cribbs, whose parents live in the Laurel area.
Jim Alfred, 25, of Finksburg, Carroll County, said he gave up a $10-an-hour union carpenter's job in Baltimore to realize his "lifelong goal" to become a firefighter. "I took college courses in five protection and applied to Prince George's over two years ago. It's a terrible thing to happen to anybody," he said.
Thomas Daily, 21, of New Carrollton, with five years as a county fire department volunteer, called it "job discrimination."
With the legal issue of reverse discrimination presently before the U.S. Supreme Court, the 14 left the county office building to consult with union leaders and lawyers. "We all feel the same," said Cribbs, who acted as their spokesman, "and we'll take it all the way to the Sumpreme Court or somewhere."
Under Kelly's administration, the county has sought to bring more blacks into local government to more accurately reflect the changing racial demographics of Prince George's. The transition has not always been easy: race remains a factor that often provokes strong feelings in matters affecting particularly the police and fire departments and the schools.