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Recruiting a Diverse Firefighting Force

Return to the March 15, 2013 issue of On Scene

For many years, the Rochester (N.Y.) Fire Department has faced the challenge of recruiting a diverse firefighting force that better demographically represents our city's population. Successive chiefs have tried various approaches; some were more successful than others, but none seemed to produce positive results over multiple hiring cycles.

Two years ago, we set out to find a better hiring process to address this challenge. The successful answer has two fronts: the right recruiting and the right testing processes.

Our recruiting efforts were largely community-based. We worked with local agencies and churches to reach an audience that wasn't getting the information by traditional means, such as radio and television advertisements.

To find the right testing answer, we reviewed successful techniques and processes from around the county. We found a few cities that were creating a diverse candidate pool to hire from. Two of these cities—Memphis, Tenn., and Kansas City, Mo.—appeared to be hitting the mark. Both of these cities had enlisted the assistance of Morris & McDaniel, a consulting firm specializing in HR management.

Morris & McDaniel's recommended approach was to forgo the New York state written test/physical-ability model that was so familiar to us and instead employ a written test followed by an oral exam. They advised us to save the physical training for the training academy. There professional trainers could individually tailor workout and nutritional routines to best prepare recruits for the rigors of firefighting.

It took both a leap of faith on our part to break with tradition and some convincing of our governmental leaders and agencies, but we successfully convinced the stakeholders and forged ahead with this new plan. We further refined our own processes and restricted exam eligibility to city residents. This helped ensure that candidates would be people who reflected the Rochester community because they are the Rochester community.

This process proved successful. We have the most diverse candidate pool in the history of the Rochester Fire Department. Furthermore, there's a depth to this diversity that will enable us to seat additional classes with the same amount of representation of races and genders.

I believe it will be easier to sustain this diversity mix as we move forward. A straw poll of the current recruit class indicates that half our recruits came from our new community-based recruitment efforts that involved city churches and community agencies.

The other half was more traditionally recruited through family and friends urging them to apply. As we know, the tradition in the fire service is that we are a close community. Our traditions run deep. The passion for what we do and our commitment to community service is passed from generation to generation.

We hope that the combination of a new testing format and recruiting focus will have allowed some of these traditions to take root across ethnic and gender boundaries, entering families and communities that weren't previously a part of the Rochester Fire Department. In the past, sons were encouraged to follow their fathers and uncles into the fire service. Now, instead of just sons, daughters will also follow. And they won't follow just fathers and uncles, but mothers and aunts as well, into the proud and noble profession of the fire service.

Our job isn't yet complete. The next measure of success will come in May, when we swear in the graduates of the current recruit class. Then we'll know that this forward-thinking combination of recruiting, testing and academy-based physical training has met our goal of providing capable, qualified and diverse firefighters ready to serve our community.

Salvatore Mitrano III is fire chief for the Rochester (N.Y.) Fire Department and a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program.

These changes wouldn't have been possible without the dedication and hard work of many others, including:

  • Rochester Mayor Thomas Richards
  • City Council President Lovely Warren
  • City Councilman and Chair of the Public Safety Committee Adam McFadden
  • Retired Fire Chief John D. Caufield
  • Former Deputy Fire Chief Teresa Everett 
  • Our many community partners within the city, including many city churches
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