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Milkwaukee County suburbs fire departments strugle with diversity

Out of the 600+ firefighters that work in the Milwaukee County suburbs, only one is African-American, according to a Journal Sentinel survey. That lone African American firefighter was hired, in West Allis, just nine months ago. The survey was done after a suburban fire chief was suspended last month for using racial slurs. The results led some African- American leaders to demand that suburban departments do more to attract African-Americans to firefighting.

According to census figures show that nearly 12,000 African-Americans live in the 18 Milwaukee County suburbs.  That accounts for about 3.3% of the total population while the 1 firefighter accounts for just 0.15% of the firefighters. Wauwatosa Fire Chief Dean Redman said suburban chiefs want their departments to better reflect the communities they serve. The survey results, Redman said, might be what it takes to spur suburban departments to action, perhaps by collaborating to promote firefighting among minority youths.

According to suburban fire chiefs a lack of qualified applicants, and not racism, is the major reason so few firefighters are black.  It’s hard to say what the cause is fore sure but racisim coming fromt he top levels of the fire department probably does not do anything to encourage African Americans to apply for positions with the department. What needs to be addressed, say some African-American leaders, is why the number of applicants is so small. Attention to fire departments and race rose after South Milwaukee Fire Chief Jay Behling admitted using the N-word five times in front of employees at his firehouse in February. The 25 member firehouse in South Milwaukee is all white and officials there don’t remember a black firefighter ever having a position there.

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