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Lack of Hiring Black Firefighters Angers Locals

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San Bernardino

By Cheryl Brown

Black firefighters are at a premium in San Bernardino. It is a fact that there has not been one Black hired in 10 years. This fact has James Tate, a local concerned citizen, seeing red. And has the fire chief very concerned that Proposition 209 has kept the city from specifically targeting a diverse population.

Tate sent Black Voice News a copy of the letter he sent to Fire Chief Larry Pitzer. It stated that he was tired of waiting and of watching all Whites hired while qualified Blacks were not.

He told Black Voice News he was working with the late NAACP President Willie Clark on the issue and he died before they could finish the process.

"I have worked on this issue for two years with Willie Clark. He felt we should go slow and document what was happening," said Tate who is also the Founder/Chair of the Black Republican’s Council. "I have had it. It makes me sick to look around and see how uneven the playing field is for Blacks. It is time to wake up," said Tate.

"There is a qualified candidate and they will not hire him because he is Black," said Tate. In an interview with Black Voice News Chief Pitzer said, "It is true we haven’t hired a Black firefighter in 10 years, but I have only been here since 1997. We are working with the Black firefighters to reach out to the community. They were recruiting in the churches and on the Westside (the area of the highest concentration of minorities).”

The qualified candidate Tate was referring to is Patrick Majors. "Majors was not qualified for the position when the job announcement was posted in 2000 and his name wasn’t placed on the civil service list, " said Pitzer. Majors said he had only one thing missing but he had everything else. Not all agencies require the state approved academy certificate and the job announcement states the academy and physical can be done within 6 months of the hire date. After trying to get hired with the department for several years Majors was told he had to go to the state accredited academy at Crafton Hills College because it is the only local state fire marshal approved academy even though he had been working as a paid call firefighter with the CDC, has experience with the California Department of Forestry, has a host of certificates necessary for the job and completed much of his education in the field.

The city keeps extending the eligibility list and it is 2003 and he still has no job. According to a Black Voice source, a White woman was hired from the same group and Majors finished the academy before she finished the required physical agility test. Majors has long since finished the academy. He now finds out he doesn’t need it because the next group of hires will be taken from an unapproved local academy. Tate feels Majors is being sent through hoops. "It is apparent to me that the non-accredited fire academy …is nothing more that a smokescreen and a sham," said Tate.

Chief Pitzer feels that Tate is comparing apples to oranges in this case. In three years things have changed, the chief and the Black firefighters organization understand the problems of not hiring Blacks and decided to develop their own academy, taught by the same Crafton Hills academy teachers. Pitzer said there were about 200 people which included 4 African Americans." They did not make it for one reason or another and there were no Blacks in the academy that was developed by the Black firefighter’s," said Pitzer.

Candidates from this department academy will not have to go to Crafton because the changes will be listed on the new job announcement. The old eligibility list expires and a new one has to be established in about 60 days depending on the city budget. In 2000 a job announcement requesting candidates for a lateral transfer was posted.

According to the 2000 job announcement some qualifications could be substituted until up to six months after the hire to be approved by the Fire Chief. He didn’t qualify again and the chance to diversify was lost. Tate’s concern is Majors is qualified and still not in. "According to their current procedures, Patrick has always been qualified. They told him that he needed a certificate from an accredited fire academy, but now they’re hiring from a non-accredited academy. It’s a bunch of bull," said Tate. Majors hasn’t given up.

Majors’ situation is daunting but Xente Baker just gave up and is now a firefighter in Corona. For as long as he can remember he wanted to be a fireman. "I would see Jimmy Jews and Vincent Gates on the fire truck at the Black History parade every year. My family had a friend who was a fireman. I always wanted to be one and to work for the city of San Bernardino," said Baker.

One day after he came back from completing two years of college and after being laid off from the post office as a temporary worker he decided to go see if he could be a volunteer fireman. "I went in and met Rita Kent who said there are other jobs in the department, "said Baker. She mentored him for two years. When the job came opened and he interviewed he was a very close second. According Kent, a Fire Prevention Officer, he should have been hired. "Baker volunteered for two years and only missed one day. I was training him so he would be ready when the position opened," said Kent. Kent says the interview is only one part of the equation. Her recommendation should have carried a lot of weight.

Chief Pitzer’s assessment of the situation is a little different. He says the panel that Kent was a part of ranked Baker second and the other person first. He said it was that ranking that created the problem. "The interview is not the only thing hiring is based on," said Kent. The other candidate was hired and as soon as he could transfer he did. The person was promoted to firefighter and the position was again open. Pitzer said, "We then tried to get Xante back. He came in, talked with me and the Deputy Marshal Preciado, and we offered him the job.

He wanted to be able to go in as an Inspector and lateral over into suppression. We wanted him to get some more experience in Inspection. However, he felt he owed the Corona Department because they extended a part time position to fulltime and he could become a firefighter more quickly. We waited two and a half weeks for him to make a decision," said Pitzer.

Baker said his only dream in life was to become a firefighter in the city of San Bernardino. Two things were important to his future. "I asked them about my education and what opportunities and support I’d have to continue in the field. They said they didn’t have much money and anyway I’d be too busy to go to school. They also wanted me to stay in prevention work and not become a fireman. I felt I’d be limited there. Already in Corona, they sent me to the National Fire Academy for two weeks and I am now a firefighter. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make," said Baker.

Kent said the Blacks in the department were very disappointed and upset about the loss of such a good candidate. Captain Vincent Gates, a 25-year veteran, agreed and said that is one of the reasons the Black firefighters will not participate on the fire truck for the Black History Parade. "We don’t want to give the false sense that the department is hiring and promoting Blacks or other minorities. It hasn’t worked that way.

It is our silent protest," said Gates. Not all the Black firefighters are boycotting the parade even though the result is that they are not there. Howard Bennett says he has just been out of town the last couple of years.

Gates said it was he who pulled together all of the Black firefighters to find a solution to the problem. He was the one to get everyone together to do something. He said the department recently tried to rectify the problem at least on the surface. It turned out that all of the candidates in the department academy who walked across the stage at the culmination of a department non-certified academy were White. "Not true," said Pitzer. "There were several minorities."

Gates said the idea was to get minorities from the community in the department. Since the city is a majority of people of color there would be a good applicant pool. Unfortunately it didn’t work that way. Gates said he wants to mentor some young people who would be interested in the department. He feels it is the best way to insure minorities are included. "The academy was set up to get more people from the community to come into the department.

Not one made it and even though it was expressly set up to get diversity the goal was not achieved," said Gates. Pitzer says Gates was not an intricate part of the academy. "Vincent is a wonderful guy. But he didn’t take an active hand in the academy," said Pitzer. "No I didn’t because I know what would happen and it did. It failed to get any Blacks in the process," he said.

Kent was not only upset with her mentee being rejected she tells the story about her own case. She has been doing the same job for 27 years, four years ago she was given a White male to train. She was his supervisor. Before she knew it he was promoted to Fire Marshal. "I never had an idea that the job would become available to a civilian employee," she said. Everything she found out was through rumor. "I was told that the Fire Marshal would be recruited from another city then I heard the rumor about it being in-house," said Kent. Pitzer admits to the historic change. "

I dusted off the Fire Marshal, before, the only person who could apply was a battalion chief," said Pitzer. The rules were changed. "I changed the rules on that because I wanted to open it up to other candidates department-wide. There is no question she (Kent) was the senior but he (Fire Marshal Doug Dupree) had 18 years experience before he was hired in the department and he had a degree," said Pitzer. Kent was hurt by the way they handled the situation. "It is a woman vs. man thing," she said. "Doug Dupree, is finishing up his BA degree, the education requirement has been consistently applied," said Pitzer.

‘They change the rules’ was continually voiced throughout our interviews but Retired Captain Jimmy Jews said, "all of these departments keep changing the rules to suit themselves. As long as the brothers are new in the department and have no seniority then seniority is what they use. Everytime a big group of Blacks get seniority then seniority is out and merit is in. Merit is very subjective,’ he said. "One of my concerns is the rules changes," confirmed Bennett.

Jews said the job description for firefighters should be re-written to reflect the education that is needed before anyone walks in the door. "It is giving brothers a false sense of what it takes to be a firefighter. At least two years of college is needed along with a lot of preparation and work. Many want to get out of high school and jump right into a job. The job description doesn’t say you have to do this (have college)," said Jews.

Howard Bennett, a battalion chief says that is why the Black firefighters started the academy. "There has not been a Black hired in the city for 10 years. I told Tony Dupre (S.B. School Board President) of my concerns and he set up a meeting to work with Adult Ed. We recruited and accepted applications. We started with 158 applicants. They were given a 10th grade LVN test. Sixty-five people passed at 75%. Forty-five were selected for the first academy. There were 13 Hispanics and 5 Blacks in the group, the rest were White. I went by the SOP and 27 graduated. All of the Blacks fell away, we don’t know why," said Bennett.

Pitzer explained, "we are trying to do the right thing. A new San Bernardino City Schools program that takes students from 9-12 grades placing them in a service related academy should yield some candidates in the future. We are trying to do what we can to correct the problem. I am passionate about it. I rise and fall, live and breathe on the facts," said Pitzer. It is a fact says Tate, that no qualified Black has been hired in the San Bernardino Fire Department for 10 years. "

He will have to address the issues surrounding the fact that no Blacks have been hired in 10 years. What is his action plan to address this problem," asked Tate.
He will have a long way to go to repair some of the hurt and sour feelings that exist in the department and with Tate who started the ball rolling on this issue. Pitzer said he has never had a problem with any Black person in his department. Those we spoke to do not agree.

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