After an almost entirely white class of paramedics was hired at the Lansing Fire Department in 2019, Mayor Andy Schor said he was “disappointed” by the lack of diversity in the ranks. And over the last two years, his administration has kept focused on recruiting more people of color.
But are the efforts paying their dividends? The answer isn’t so straightforward.
The latest hiring round brought nine staffers to the department this year. Six of them identify as people of color. And while the department is actually less diverse than it was in 2019, Schor said he’s “proud” of his administration’s work to hire employees who are racially reflective of the city.
“Hopefully it’s more than baby steps. It’s middle-sized steps,” Schor explained. “I’m very optimistic that as people retire, we’ll be able to bring in diverse classes. It’s very, very difficult. That’s the case in fire departments across the country. I don’t know why it’s so difficult, but it is.”
Criticism mounted against Schor in 2019 after the Fire Department released an image of nine recently hired paramedics. All of them pictured — save for one Latino — were white men. Former Chief Randy Talifarro also came out against Schor, pointing to an “extremely uncomfortable” workplace that created a culture that stifled recruitment of diverse talent.
In response, Schor rolled out a plan that involved creating a youth cadet program and identifying a more appropriate mix of licensed paramedics and lesser trained emergency medical technicians. He also doubled down on efforts to cast a wider hiring net for people of color.
And in January, those efforts started to show results in Lansing. Of the nine employees most recently hired at the Fire Department, six of them are identified as people of color, including three Black people. Schor labeled the more diverse mix as a sign of successful hiring reforms.
“It’s not there yet, but it’s close. We need more. We’d like to have the diversity match our city, and we’re getting there,” Schor said. “You want those who respond, especially those who are forward facing to the public, to be able to share experiences with those they are protecting. With some people, it’s a trust factor. People can just relate better when they can see that diversity.”
Fire departments nationwide have long struggled to attract minority applicants. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 95% of all firefighters are men and 85% of them are white. In Lansing, that makeup is 94% men, 70% white, according to records provided by Schor’s office.
But despite the latest class including six more people of color, racial disparities have only widened across the department’s roster over the last few years. Black employees accounted for about 19.2% of the Fire Department in 2019. In January, that percentage was tallied at 18.9%.
In 2019, the staff included 49 people of color. And despite what Schor labeled as his “best efforts” to attract a more diverse candidate pool, that number remained the same in January, albeit with eight fewer white employees this year than what was tracked in February 2019.
“I can’t control who retires. I can’t control who leaves. You’re always going to have turnover in every department. But as long as you’re recruiting diversity, it helps level things out,” Schor said.
Among those efforts to bolster diversity at the Fire Department include last year’s creation of a youth cadet program, a partnership with the Lansing School District that trains and recruits classes of up to a dozen local students to work at the Fire Department after graduation.
“What we really wanted was to get more Lansing firefighters,” Schor said. “Because Lansing is a diverse city, getting Lansing firefighters and working with Lansing schools means a more diverse workforce. Our current class is almost entirely members of these different diverse communities.”
None of the students involved in that inaugural and ongoing class have yet made their way through the pipeline to the Fire Department. When they do, Schor expects it will bolster overall diversity as they finish their exams and are shuffled into full-time firefighter or paramedic jobs.
“The administration has also worked with a lot of recruiters and others to get the word out to different places,” Schor added. “Chief Mike Mackey knew this was a priority of mine. He knew I really didn’t want to see a class of 13 or 14 white guys and one Latino guy. He did a lot of communication, pushing out the word. We also made sure that we had qualified people to hire.”
Interim Fire Chief Greg Martin, the chief for 10 years before he retired in 2016, labeled the Fire Department as one of the most diverse departments in Michigan. He said he hates quotas but recognized the recruitment and hiring process can always be improved.
“These things are very much still in their infancy,” Martin explained. “This is a national issue. Paramedics are like an endangered species right now. To find a paramedic of color? That’s even more of an endangered species. That’s why we’re focusing on our homegrown talent.”
Martin said the first class of student cadets began last year. Exams are scheduled for May. From there, they’ll also have an opportunity for paid internship opportunities at the department. He also said the Fire Department expects as many as 30 vacancies will open as senior staff continue to retire this year, creating an opportunity for demographics to continue to shift.
“There’s no magic solution here to diversity, but we’re trying” Martin added. “The biggest sales point we have at this point is a young kid seeing someone that looks like them on a fire engine.”
Added Schor: “We’re going to make sure that we continue to take measures to get us to a qualified and diverse department. What we can do is recruit a diverse class that is qualified. I’m not proclaiming victory or the job done. I’m just happy that we’re able to make some progress.”