St. Paul wants more Black firefighters


In a continual quest to increase diversity, the St. Paul Fire Department has been accepting applications for firefighter positions throughout the month of January. Until January 29, applications are being accepted and Blacks and other persons of color are highly encouraged to apply, St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler said last week in an MSR interview.

“There is still plenty of time for people to put in an application to become a firefighter in St. Paul,” urged Butler, adding this is the first such application drive in five years. “We have these every few years,” he said.

Currently there are about 435 St. Paul firefighters, with around 35 Blacks among the department’s 80 persons of color, along with 16 women, reported the chief. He said that increasing diversity in his department is a top priority.
“Our membership does not reflect the people we are serving,” said Chief Butler.

“I think increasing the diversity in the department will make us better service providers.”

There are three Black males in the current firefighter’s class of 20 individuals who are expected to graduate from the 16-week course in February. “Based on their performance,” said Butler, “they all should pass.”

The basic qualifications for becoming a firefighter include being a high school graduate or having a GED, being at least 18 years old, having a valid Minnesota driver’s license, and passing a written test. “The test will establish a hiring list that we will use for the next couple of years,” explained Butler.

Additionally, “You have to complete an emergency medical technician class,” said Butler. “That requirement is required at the time of hiring.”

The St. Paul Fire Department is accepting applications to create “a fresh updated list” of qualified applicants, “and we want to get people from the communities of color included in the fire department on a higher degree than we’ve had in the past,” said Butler.

Since a summer 2008 racial incident – a stuffed monkey was discovered hanging in a noose inside a St. Paul public service garage, for which three employees later were disciplined – Butler says that the environment around his department has improved: “I think [conditions have] improved quite significantly.”

As a result of that incident, a diversity and race relations task force was created where Butler and several Black firefighters meet regularly. “It was mainly established to address the issues the Black firefighters have brought to light,” said the chief. “We have been addressing some of these issues, and we’ve resolved some of them.

“We got a ways to go, but the members of that committee have been pretty positive about where we are going and the results we’ve obtained so far,” continued Butler.

As the capital city’s top firefighter, Butler says the racial incident almost two years ago has been a learning experience for him in becoming more sensitive to the needs and concerns of both his firefighters of color and the communities of color as well. “For me, it has been a great personal awakening, but for our whole fire department it has been a wake-up call,” he admitted.

“I think my biggest lesson from the experience is that there are some significant issues and significant history – good history as well as negative history – in this department that we all don’t know.

“It is all good for us to keep that in perspective and learn from it by talking with the Black firefighters and seeing through their eyes what is still happening in our fire department and the service we deliver. That’s one of the things still concerns me.”

Butler also says he wants community leaders to help him in his goal to increase diversity in the St. Paul Fire Department. “We try really hard, or we think we are trying really hard, but a word from us doesn’t mean as much as a word from the NAACP leaders and other community leaders out there in the neighborhood.”
The fire chief urges other ethnic groups to join in this effort as well. “[We] haven’t been able to crack the Hmong community and the Asian community as much,” he noted.

Finally, Butler said that although his department is moving forward, there still are areas of improvement that need to be made, especially in increasing diversity. “Does our service change with the population that we’re serving?” he asked rhetorically.

“There are reports that perhaps some communities get less professional service than the White community. That bothers me deeply.”

All interested persons in applying for St. Paul firefighters positions can go to the St. Paul’s city website: “That web site has everything about the test,” says Butler. “It has everything to do on how you can get a job as a St. Paul firefighter.”
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