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Charlotte Fire Chief Responds To Criticisms Of Minority Hiring Practices

Charlotte Fire Chief Jon Hannan is addressing criticism that his department has for years failed to hire minorities, especially minority women.

African-American and Hispanic women make up only slightly more than 1 percent of his employees. Among the department's 1,039 firefighters, two are African-American women. One is a Hispanic woman.

In an interview with WFAE, Hannan said the problem is not limited to Charlotte.

"Every fire department in the U.S. is challenged with this," he says, "We've been challenged with this for years."  

Hannan says the department has attempted to entice minorities with recruitment efforts at CIAA events and at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Yet by the time many men and women are in college, "it's almost too late for us," Hannan says, "They have an idea of what they want to do."

The fire chief also said grueling, months-long training can be a deterrent. In addition, the prospect of working as a firefighter may be unappealing.

"You're going to have on a helmet some time every day," he said, "You're not going to keep your hair nice. You can't have long fingernails. You can't have colored nail polish."

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE-FM
Linda Lockhart, hired in 1981 as the department's first African-American woman, addresses city council Monday

His comments come after activists publicly challenged the department's lack of diversity on multiple occasions over the last several weeks. In one notable incident, the head of the Charlotte NAACP showed up at a fire department open house and dressed down department staff in front of news cameras.

At a city council meeting this week, Linda Lockhart, hired in 1981 as the department's first African-American woman, told council members that the department's few minority women are routinely passed over for promotions.

"This has been going on for a while," said Lockhart, who still works for the department today, "We call them the untouchables, because the city council or nobody have listened to us for the last 10 years."

Hannan said the department is committed to boosting its diversity levels.

"It's important to reflect the people you serve," he said, "I mean, it's Charlotte's fire department."


NICK DE LA CANAL: Fire departments across the state are suffering from a lack of minorities in the ranks. This isn't just in Charlotte. In fact, just this week, leaders in Fayetteville called for an independent review of their fire department's hiring practices as it relate to minorities, but I want to ask, what is the issue within your department?

JON HANNAN: Nick, and first, it's not even across North Carolina, it's across the United States. Every fire department in the U.S. is challenged with this, with bringing in good minority representation on their fire department.

DE LA CANAL: And so why is that?

HANNAN: You know, I'm not sure. We've been challenged with this for years. It's letting the African-American community and - newer to Charlotte - the Latino community know there's a place for them on the fire department.

DE LA CANAL: Do you think it would have anything to do with the way firefighters are hired and the way the department trains them and bring them into the department?

HANNAN: I don't know if it's so much that, it's - if you want to become a Charlotte firefighter, you sign up. You take a written test. Everyone that passes - and it's usually about 70 to 75 percent pass - they go to a physical agility test. Now, when you give the written test, you have to give them a minimum eight weeks before you put them through the physical agility test, because they have to see what there is to it, and you have to give them a chance to get ready, and you have to give them multiple opportunities to take it, because it's a tough test. But it's a tough job. We can't hire somebody as a firefighter that can't swing an axe, that can't breach a door, that can't drag another human being out of a burning building.

DE LA CANAL: Yeah, that's a very long process that takes many weeks. There's a lot of different steps - maybe takes months?

HANNAN: Yes. It does.

DE LA CANAL: Takes months. So that might be a barrier for some people. You've said that the department is starting these initiatives to bring teenagers into the department through CMS, but does the department have anything that is targeting, specifically, minorities - or minority women?

HANNAN: Yes. We work CIAA. We work the traditionally African-American colleges.

DE LA CANAL: You mean you have outreach people there?

HANNAN: Yes. Absolutely. But a lot of times where they're at the end of college. It's almost too late for us. They have an idea of what they want to do. We need to find people that are interested in this or they won't follow the process through. That's some of our problem. Recruit school is tough. The turnout gear is heavy. You're going to have a helmet on. And once you're through recruit school on a fire truck, you're going to have a helmet on some time every day, because our companies are so busy, they all run multiple calls, so - you're not going to keep your hair nice. You can't have long fingernails. You can't have colored nail polish. You've got to connect with the folks that want to do this to get them through the process and get them successfully into it.

DE LA CANAL: Why is so important - or is it important - for the Charlotte Fire Department to have minority women represented in its ranks?

HANNAN: It's important to reflect the people you serve. You want to reflect the whole demographic. Everyone. I mean, it's Charlotte's fire department.

DE LA CANAL: Jon Hannan. He's the fire chief of the Charlotte Fire Department. Thank you.

HANNAN: Thanks for having us.

Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal