Urging an alternative career choice
Black firefighters say more blacks need to be exposed to the field.
By JOHN W. GOODWIN JR.
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- In an emergency, firefighters from departments across the area respond immediately, risking their lives to save their neighbors.
During a recent roundtable discussion, members of the Youngstown-Warren Association of Black Firefighters said a greater percentage of those lifesavers should be black. The organization is looking for ways to increase the number of blacks who want to become firefighters.
About 10 percent of the firefighters in Youngstown are black. Warren's number is less than 10 percent, and New Castle and Farrell each have one. Association members believe such small numbers show blacks are missing out on an excellent career opportunity.
Cities such as Youngstown and Warren, which have larger numbers of black residents, should have more blacks seeking and getting jobs with the fire departments, the members say. The numbers should reflect the percentage of blacks in the community, they contend.
According to association president Ted Everett, who has spent two decades fighting fires in Youngstown, a relatively low number of black firefighters is not unique to the Mahoning Valley -- the same situation exists in departments across the country. The reasons are numerous, association members say.
Everett said one of the biggest barriers to blacks' becoming firefighters, or at least considering the profession, is a lack of exposure to the field. Many people over the years who consider becoming firefighters see firefighters in their families or immediate surroundings, but for most blacks, that is not the case, he said.
"When most of us [blacks] come in contact with a firefighter, it is usually during a fire or some other emergency and at that point, you're not really thinking in terms of a career, but more about handling that situation," he said. "It's rarely presented to our brothers, sisters and children as a career choice."
Hubert Clardy Jr., chief fire safety inspector with the Youngstown Fire Department for 17 years, said the lack of black exposure to the field can be detrimental for those who do choose to become firefighters. Many of those blacks, he said, do not know to take certain crucial preparatory steps before taking the civil service exam -- steps that could add up to extra points on the exam.
Clardy said it is important to understand that extra points can be earned on the civil service exam for such things as being an EMT or paramedic, having a fire science associate's degree or having been through the state firefighters course.
A big factor
Donald Price II, a three-year member of the Youngstown Fire Department, said there is another major factor beyond exposure that may prevent some blacks from going through the entire process to become a firefighter: intimidation. He said many blacks do not feel they have a chance at actually being hired on the department.
Price went in three years ago to take the physical test required to become a firefighter in Youngstown. When he entered the exam area, the lack of any black faces among those administering or taking the test was almost enough to make him head for the exit door.
"It's an intimidation thing -- at least it was for me when I went in to take the test, and you see all these white guys with T-shirts with different fire departments on them -- it can be intimidating," he said.
Price said he has known of other blacks who did not take the test for the same reason and he too started to leave, but he was next up to take the test. Now, he's happy he stayed and took the physical test, but he wonders how many other blacks did not stay and missed the opportunity to join the department.
Sharyl Frasier, who has been on the Youngstown department for 20 years and was the first black female hired, said association members are hoping to give more blacks more exposure to career firefighters. She said members will be getting out into the public to let residents know when there is an exam and what to expect from the process.
"We are inviting these people out for a meet-and-greet so that they can get a realistic view on what we do as firefighters," she said. "We have been successful, but we are trying to do a little better."
Everett said younger blacks who might want to become firefighters should ideally begin thinking about the decision early, around the 10th grade, and start learning more about the profession then. He said it is good to volunteer on a department if possible, and take an emergency medical technician course.
Everett said it's also wise to stay sharp in reading and math, stay physically fit for the physical test and steer clear of legal trouble.