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City bills would mandate Fire Department employment reports

Baltimore City firefighters respond to a fire at Public School 103 in Upton in 2016. The department is experiencing hiring woes amid the pandemic.
Baltimore Heritage/Flickr
Baltimore City firefighters respond to a fire at Public School 103 in Upton in 2016. The department is experiencing hiring woes amid the pandemic.

Elijah Gorham, the Mervo High School football player who died this week from injuries sustained in a game in September, waited nearly an hour for help to arrive, according to City Councilwoman Odette Ramos.

“It took EMS 45 minutes to get to him, and that was a life and death situation,” she said Wednesday during a hearing on city fire department hiring woes.

Fire Chief Niles Ford attributed the delay to said the city’s EMS recruiting challenges, which he said are in line with national trends.He told the council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committee that his department is working to address them.

Meanwhile, union leaders have complained that workers are overworked and teams are understaffed. Councilman Mark Conway, chairman of the committee, highlighted potential delays within the department’s hiring process.

The Fire Department and the Department of Human Resources opened a listing for firefighters and EMTs in early spring for the first time since 2015; the listing was open for about two and a half weeks, Conway said.

The listing netted 2,994 applicants.After a review of their applications, the departments invited roughly 2,850 candidates to take a written test.

Only 770 candidates showed up for the tests held from Tuesday, Aug. 31 through Thursday, Sept. 2. This drop in candidates reflects two equity barriers, Conway said: HR’s email invitations were sent to applicants’ spam folders and the test was held during business hours, with no evening or weekend options for working candidates.

He compared this to hiring procedures for the same job listing in 2009, when human resources accepted paper applications, informed candidates of their written test date and location via postcards in the mail and held tests on the weekend. Of the 2,170 who applied, 1,497 showed up to take the test — leading to a much wider hiring pool for the city.

Ford said several cycles of written tests were delayed multiple times throughout the pandemic amid safety concerns.

At the same time, he said, neighboring departments that compete with Baltimore for the same pool of candidates were proceeding with their written tests as scheduled.

He attributed one delay to determining how to hold the test in accordance with pandemic protocols.

“An idea that flew around was, ‘OK, let's give the test entirely online,’ ” Ford told council members. “I have to be honest with you, that's one of the things I pushed back on. There is a digital divide, a significant one that I know personally, in the city of Baltimore.”

Eventually, the Scott administration allowed in-person tests.

Ford said the department is being “extraordinarily deliberate” in recruiting efforts through targeted advertisements, job fairs and outreach to schools, organizations and community groups in every council district.

Councilman Kristerfer Burnett has introduced two bills that aim to procure better data on hiring policies and practices within the department.

The Democrat’s first bill would require the fire department to submit a report to the mayor and the City Council that details the agency’s policies, practices and internal control systems, as well as evaluate the potential establishment of an office dedicated to compliance and internal investigations.

The bill originally called for the department to issue the report within 120 days of passage; Burnett introduced an amendment to lengthen that deadline to 240 days. He said the department had asked the council for 365 days.

“This body does need to be able to move a little bit swifter in our response and our ability to assess the department's operations,” he said. “And so pushing a report for a year doesn't really accomplish that.”

Burnett’s second bill would require the department to produce a report evaluating departmental operations, fire suppression and Emergency Medical Services staffing, community risk reduction programs and performance management programs. Burnett also introduced an amendment to lengthen the report’s deadline from 140 to 240 days.

Fire Chief Ford said he looks forward to ongoing conversations with the council.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.