Calif. county to establish fire department diversity program

The program would focus on recruiting people of color and women to become firefighter-paramedics and supporting them financially while they complete the academic work necessary to qualify


Richard Halstead
The Marin Independent Journal

NOVATO, Calif. — Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber is spearheading an effort to increase diversity among the ranks of Marin firefighters.

Weber previewed a program in development that would focus on recruiting people of color and women to become firefighters and supporting them financially while they complete the academic work necessary to qualify during a county budget session last month. He hopes to launch the program by January 2022.

"Our vision is to institutionalize a community-driven wildfire prevention program that supports underserved, underrepresented and underfunded young adults in and around Marin County," Weber told supervisors.

"I'm pleased to announce today that we have 100% interest in participation from all of the fire agencies in Marin," Weber added. "So this won't be just a Marin County Fire Department effort."

John Bagala, president of the Marin Professional Firefighters, Local 1775, which represents 428 firefighters in all 10 of Marin's fire agencies, says his union supports the idea.

"Things changed with the George Floyd case," Bagala said. "I think every organization everywhere had to do a little internal soul searching and try to figure out what they could do better."

The initiative comes as the demands on California firefighters are growing exponentially due to wildfires that seem to grow in ferocity each year, and as the county strives to build a workforce to do hazardous vegetation removal. A revenue stream to pay for the work was created by the passage of Measure C, which created the Marin Wildfire Prevention Authority.

"It's absolutely a win-win," Weber said. "We can use the fire prevention work that the community as a whole has made a large investment in to give program participants a job as they're working on their education."

Weber provided statistics that illustrate his department has plenty of room for improvement when it comes to diversity. Nearly 83% of the department's 80 full-time firefighters are White men.

Approximately 7.5% are White women, and an equal percentage are Latino. Asians account for 2.2% of the firefighters. None of the department's full-time firefighters are African American.

Three percent of Marin's population is Black, 16% is Latino and 6% is Asian. Fifty-one percent of the county's population is female.

Weber said in past years fire departments across the nation tended to hire the relatives of existing firefighters.

"It was sons and nephews and brothers," Weber said. "That was not a fair and equitable recruiting process. It is important that we look at ways we can bring fairness and equity to our recruitment process."

Bagala said, "We do have second- and third- and maybe fourth-generation firefighters in this county."

He said, however, he believes the lack of racial diversity in Marin fire departments has more to do with California's exacting requirements to qualify for entry-level firefighter positions.

To qualify, applicants typically have to be certified as both an emergency medical technician and a paramedic in addition to earning an associate degree in fire science. All of which can take over three years and cost $15,000 to $20,000.

In addition, applicants also need some relevant experience so they typically have to volunteer or do seasonal work as a firefighter before being hired full time.

Darin White, who left a job as Oakland's fire chief to become the chief of San Rafael's fire department in March 2020, agrees that the paramedic requirement is problematic for increasing diversity among Marin's firefighters.

"My experience has been you find a lot more diversity when you have an EMT requirement as opposed to a firefighter-paramedic requirement," White said. "Sometimes it is cost prohibitive for folks who are looking to become firefighters to become a paramedic before they can become qualified to test with an agency.

"Marketing may have a lot to do with it as well," White said. "How well an agency markets the fact that it is looking to embrace people of color and women in their organization. When individuals look at an organization and don't see a lot of diversity, it may not be an attractive option for them."

White said besides himself the San Rafael Fire Department has only one other African American employee.

Novato fire Chief Bill Tyler said, "I agree with the other fire chiefs that this is an important moment for Marin County to provide as much outreach as possible to cast a broad net."

Tyler, however, said Novato requires its entry-level firefighters to be licensed paramedics. Five of Novato's 60 firefighter-paramedics are Latino, four are female, and the remainder are White men.

"Because our entry-level requirements are higher than county fire's, there is a different pool of candidates for Novato fire that requires additional knowledge, skills, abilities and expertise," Tyler said. "So it's not likely that some of the efforts that Jason is describing will be able to immediately create a larger pool of diverse candidates for Novato fire.

"We have paramedics that are on every single engine," Tyler said. "If you're calling because your parent is having a stroke or heart attack, don't you want a paramedic on the fire engine to help save their life?"

Weber said, ""These individuals that we'd be targeting may need additional wrap-around services because of the situation they're in. That includes food security, housing security, and support around their education."

While the money to pay the participants for fire prevention work could come from Measure C proceeds, Weber didn't specify how the wrap-around services would be paid for, except to say, "We've started discussions with some generous individuals who are interested in potentially supporting this model."

Weber said the stress that California's long string of disastrous fire seasons is placing on existing firefighters is beginning to show.

"We've had several people who have acknowledged they're having problems with mental health," Weber said. "One of them had to seek inpatient treatment. We've seen divorce rates increase. And we've seen other challenges, whether it be substance abuse or other things."

Bagala said individual firefighters are working 500 to 2,000 hours of overtime per year, giving them a 70-hour to 80-hour work week.

"That's a lot of sleep deprivation," Bagala said. "It's a lot of time away from families, a lot of opportunities to have occupational exposures to carcinogens and a lot of injuries."

For decades, California has used minimum-security inmates from state prisons to supplement its professional firefighters.

"That pool is drying up because of realignment and other criminal justice changes," Weber said. "Low level offenders aren't spending as much time in prison as they have historically."

As a result, the number of inmate firefighter crews has fallen from 196 to 53.

"Going into this fire season that is going to be very challenging," Weber said.

In September, 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2147, which allows nonviolent offenders who have fought fires as members of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation's fire camps to have their records expunged. People with criminal records can be denied a EMT or paramedic license.

"I think that was a great decision," Weber said. "Often these are low-level drug offenses. These people can be rehabilitated, and they can go on to a lifetime of public service."

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(c)2021 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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