COVINGTON, Ga. – According to numbers provided by the City Of Covington, currently, only two of city’s 53 sworn firefighters are African-American or any other minority. City leaders, including the mayor and city council, pledged Monday to take steps toward eliminating that disparity.
The issue of the department’s lack of diversity came to light at a city council meeting earlier this month when three retired firefighters- Michael Turner, the first paid African-American firefighter in Covington, Stoney R. Hamm, the first African-American fire marshal for the city, and George R. Jefferson, the first African-American deputy fire chief raised concerns about the lack of black firefighters on the department.
City Manager Leigh Anne Knight said Monday night that Covington Fire’s current recruiting process eliminates many applicants very early in the process.
“Over the last five years, the minimum requirement for our firefighter is to have his EMT Basic and to be firefighter certified,” Knight said. “Those are a lot higher standards than we have had previous to that. For about the last five years, that’s been the minimum requirement that you had to have the EMT Basic and the firefighter.
“You could apply, but to even get to the first step of the process, which is physical fitness test, basically, you had to have those two.”
Knight said that two minorities who applied for firefighter positions over the last five years had the qualifications.
“Of the people who have made it through, in other words were EMT Basics and firefighter certified, we had two minorities that qualified to go into the first step process, which is the PT test,” she said. “Basically, they are taken down the fire training center and they are actually put through basically some of the same things they would be expected to do were they hired on. If they pass that, then they move onto the next step.
“In that process, one of them did not make it out of the PT test, so they were not able to do the requirements in that set amount of time and the other one was hired.”
Knight said Covington has no way of knowing how many minority applicants for firefighter the city has had over the past five years. She said the city does not know the ethnicity of any of its applicants for firefighter, or any other position in city government.
“We can tell you how many applicants have applied, but we don’t know what their ethnicity is because we can’t ask that question. You can’t ask that question on an application,” she said.
“You can come in and fill out an application, but just because you come in and fill out an application doesn’t mean that you’re qualified. You may not have the EMT Basic and the firefighter certification.”
Knight said CFD, as well as the city’s police department, has participated in job fairs at the Nelson Heights and Washington Street Community Centers, as well as one at Georgia Piedmont Technical College over the last year.
She said the city is looking at its minimum requirements to determine if it is possible to structure the process to provide for candidates who might not come in with the skills, but who could acquire in a set period of time.
“One of the things we look at in that perspective is, to obtain your EMT Basic, it is basically like going through college courses. So we would be paying for that- to go through that college course,” she said. “Those are things that we have to think about when we’re looking at is there a potential for us to restructure this-to say maybe we don’t have to have both of those.
“Maybe you can roll right out of high school, but you have to be able to obtain this within six months and then within a year, you have to be able to obtain this, because that is the way the trend is going- for firefighters to be EMTs.”
Knight said the city has not had any trouble filling positions on the fire department.
“We’re not losing people,” she said. “Once they come, they stay. We’re not adding positions to the fire department, so there’s not a lot of turnover there.”
Mayor Ronnie Johnston said the city needs to make sure the system is fair and consistent for everybody.
“I want to make sure our system is consistent for every race, color, creed- all of that,” he said. “And I believe it is.”
Knight said that changing the process would not lower the standards.
“The objective would be that we would give them a timetable. That doesn’t mean that if you come to us with a Basic and you come to us with firefighter certificate that we wouldn’t hire you,” she said. "It means that if you come to us without those, then there would be some process through which we would go before you could be a full-fledged firefighter.
“We know that there are good people out there that are interested in being firefighters but they don’t have firefighter certification or EMT Basic.”
Knight said the city is starting a talent recruitment committee to assist the fire department in the hiring process and how job openings are marketed.
“It will consist of firefighters, including minority firefighters who are currently on staff. Their job will be to assist in the hiring processing, brainstorming ideas to reach the community, job fairs, high school, college events the Citizens Academy and anything else that we can think of to promote that and hopefully get the word out,” she said.
“There’s no silver bullet to say ‘here’s what we need to do. We’re trying to be as open and inclusive as absolutely possible and I feel like that they are doing that.”
Knight said that planned promotions will create openings throughout the chain of command, including entry level firefighter spots. Johnston said now is a good time to make changes to the process.
“It’s a great opportunity. With these changes, we should be able to tell within six months is these different tweaks in our policy have put us in a position to be able to be more diverse in our firefighter force,” Johnston said.
“We’re going to start recruiting with African-Americans being more out front. We’re going to try to set it up so there are no limits or big walls in front of people. We hope that it sets a more diverse force. I think those are appropriate. Let’s see in six months and go from there.”