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Wis. FD’s recruitment plan won’t give preference to racial minorities

Madison’s plan to recruit from “communities historically underrepresented” will not list applicants from economically disadvantaged backgrounds

By Chris Rickert
The Wisconsin State Journal

MADISON, Wis. — A Madison Fire Department internship program marketed as a way to diversify the department’s workforce would not give preference to racial minorities underrepresented in the department and would not be able to determine whether it was increasing the number of employees from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The department announced the program on March 7 by saying it was “aimed at cultivating up-and-coming talent from communities historically underrepresented in the public safety workforce,” the diversifying of which is “the primary goal of the program.”

Funded with $500,000 from an endowment at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, it would hire four interns over two years to work and attend school 40 hours a week at an annual salary of $36,400.

“Over the course of their two-year commitment to the program, interns will participate in the operational and administrative aspects of the Madison Fire Department,” the department’s announcement says. “They will also earn an associate degree from Madison College. Upon completion of the program, successful participants will be qualified for placement on the Firefighter/EMT hiring eligibility list for the Madison Fire Department .”

The job posting for the internship program that went live on Wednesday and will be open until March 27 does not specify that it is aimed at attracting the kinds of people who have historically not been on the rosters of the nation’s fire departments — in particular, women, who now make up only 11% of the department’s 412 commissioned staff and only 14% of 448 in the department overall, including civilian staff.

The posting does include questions standard to public sector job postings about an applicant’s race and sex. It also notes, as in other city job postings that: “The City of Madison is an equal opportunity employer functioning under an affirmative action plan. We value diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, trans, nonbinary, and individuals with disabilities are encouraged to apply!”

The Madison Fire Department is disproportionately white — 83% of commissioned and 84% of the entire staff are white, while census figures show whites make up 74.6% of Madison residents — but departmental representation varies by racial or ethnic group:

—Black people make up 10.4% of commissioned and 9.6% of overall departmental staff, while making up 7.3% of Madison’s population.

—Hispanic people make up 4.1% of commissioned and 3.8% of overall departmental staff, while making up 7.8% of Madison’s population.

—Asian or Pacific Islander people make up 1.2% of commissioned and 1.6% of overall departmental staff, while making up 8.4% of Madison’s population.

—Native American people make up 0.5% of commissioned and 0.4% of overall departmental staff, while making up 0.3% of Madison’s population.

The city’s Human Resources Department “will not be using race or other identifying factors ... to rule in or rule out applicants” for the internship, Director Erin Hillson said, but was “hopeful that an opportunity like this will be appealing to a very diverse group of applicants with a wide range backgrounds and experience.”

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Fire Department spokesperson Cynthia Schuster said that while “the internship program does aspire to provide career opportunities to historically underrepresented populations within the public safety workforce,” “there are no required categories that one must fit into to be considered for the internship.”

“As a practice, the City does not rule in or rule out candidates based on identity factors such as race, gender, ethnicity, etc.,” she said.

Applicants from groups that are overrepresented in the Fire Department, such as white and Black men, also will not be at a disadvantage when applying for the internship, Hillson said. But in cases in which certain groups are underrepresented in a particular position in a city agency, the city does have an affirmative action process that requires the Department of Civil Rights to review hiring decisions to ensure they weren’t discriminatory.

Schuster said the internship “also aims to provide career opportunities and access to education for people affected by economic insecurity and income instability” but said the department does not keep track of current department employees who were so disadvantaged before joining the department. That would make it impossible to know if economically disadvantaged people were underrepresented in the department to begin with and, as such, whether the internship program is giving them a leg up.

Schuster later said, “Our efforts toward providing an open pathway to education and opportunity is less about addressing an ‘underrepresentation’ within our department and more about making a career in fire and EMS attainable to anyone who would otherwise be hindered by their economic circumstances.”

In announcing the internship program, the department said, “Several studies have demonstrated that more diverse medical teams give more accurate diagnoses, identify critical illness more effectively, have higher patient satisfaction scores, have improved partnership and communication with patients, and observe greater patient adherence to treatment regimens.”

It based that assertion on a 2019 review titled “Diversity improves performance and outcomes” that looked at the effect of diversity across a range of industries and measures, including the healthcare industry.

It wasn’t apparent that the study considered diversity’s effect on the quality of the work of firefighters and paramedics, but it “pertains to medical teams,” Schuster said, “and EMS providers are a part of that continuum of care within the hospital emergency departments.”

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