When Mayor Martin J. Walsh signed a home rule petition to start a cadet program at the Boston Fire Department, he took a small but important step toward fulfilling his commitment to diversify a city agency that desperately needs a new look.
Now comes the hard part: getting from promise to program, and then to real change.
Legislative approval is needed to set up the cadet program. State Representative Chynah Tyler, who filed the bill on behalf of Walsh, said, via e-mail, she will work “my hardest to get as much support as possible from my colleagues and hopefully pass this bill.” But it’s Walsh’s job to let Beacon Hill leaders know this is a priority — and not just cover for an administration that’s falling short on all kinds of diversity results. Walsh should also make sure Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn is on board; if not, he’s not the leader Walsh or Boston needs.
Currently, the 1,500-member Boston Fire Department employs just 17 female firefighters. That’s one more woman than the department employed in January, when a city-commissioned report blasted the department for a male-dominated “locker room” culture, resistant to change. Boston’s bleak diversity numbers even lag behind the nationwide figure, which also seems inadequate: While roughly 1 percent of the force here is female, about 4 percent of US firefighters are women.
For years, the Boston Fire Department has resisted serious reform. The most recent department class has 52 men and one woman. Because of the physical demands, it has been harder for women around the country to break into firefighting. Yes, the job involves muscular strength to carry heavy equipment and manage a hose line with 150 pounds of water pressure, but women with such physical stamina are not impossible to find. Plus, the firefighting job has evolved. A 2016 study found that only 4 percent of fire department calls nationwide were fires and 64 percent involved medical emergencies, which can be handled by both men and women.
A cadet program was recommended as one way to provide a pipeline of more diverse candidates, by allowing the city to circumvent civil service laws that give preference to military veterans.
The home rule petition, approved by the Boston City Council and signed by the mayor, would allow the Boston Fire Department to recruit Boston residents between the ages of 18 and 25 to serve as fire cadets. “Upon completion of the program, cadets may receive preference on the list of eligible candidates for up to 33 percent of an incoming fire recruit class,” said Walsh in his letter to the council. According to the language of the home rule petition, an appointment to the cadet program “shall not be subject to the civil service law or rules.” However, according to a Walsh aide, some deference to the status quo remains. Cadets considered for a permanent firefighter job would be weighted above civilian applicants, but not above military veterans.
The Legislature approved a cadet program for the Boston police in 1979. Walsh reinstated it in 2015 after it was rescinded in 2009 due to financial constraints. The mayor now touts it proudly as an example of how it can change the face of a department. For example, the Boston police’s 2018 cadet class of 35 aspiring police officers included 23 men and 12 women; 63 percent were people of color and 37 percent white. Walsh says his goal for the next police cadet class it to get to 50 percent female.
For the fire department, the goals don’t have to be as high to make progress on gender diversity. A cadet program, while not the whole answer, is at least a long overdue start.