Fire department looking to diversify

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NAUGATUCK — Recent census data indicate the borough population is about 51 percent female, 9 percent Hispanic, 5 percent black and 3 percent Asian.

All 39 of the borough’s firefighters, however, are white men.

That is a fact Deputy Fire Chief Ellen Murray, the department’s first woman who is not a secretary or dispatcher, is trying to change.

“I think the fire department should be a reflection of your community and I think there’s some cultures that are more comfortable if there’s someone who represents them,” Murray said.

Murray is working with Fire Commission Chairman Wayne Malicki, firefighters’ union representative Jason Alford and the borough’s human resources department to revamp the fire department’s hiring procedures and promote it to minorities and women as a place to work.

“As the diversity of our town is changing considerably, we decided to take a look at what we can do,” Malicki said. “This is something we’ve been talking about for years.”

At least one new firefighter could be hired next year because one will probably retire, Malicki said.

Fire department employees and fire commissioners have also said they would like the borough to increase the minimum number of firefighters on a shift, possibly hiring as many as eight firefighters sometime in the future. Such a plan would have to be negotiated between the borough and the firefighters’ union.

To attract more diverse candidates, department representatives could hold presentations at Naugatuck High School or Naugatuck Valley Community College on the steps to becoming a firefighter, Malicki said. The student body at the high school is even more diverse than the town as a whole, and Naugatuck Valley Community College has a fire technology program the department could hire students from, Malicki said.

Students must be prepared early to meet the department’s requirements, because they must pass a physical test and go through a fire academy. Both are offered only twice a year, Malicki said. By the time an opening arises, it might be too late for someone who has not already passed the physical test to apply.

The department is also considering lowering the minimum employee age from 21 and dropping the requirement for emergency medical technician certification, Malicki said. Borough firefighters are not first responders to medical calls, and there are no consequences to firefighters who let their EMT certifications lapse after they are hired, Malicki said.

Those proposals are not just to attract more diverse candidates, but possibly better candidates, Malicki said.

“My goal is to get more people known so we can have a larger pool to select from,” Malicki said.

The fire department years ago advertised job openings in minority-oriented publications, but that did not work, Malicki said.

The Cultural Council has publicly asked the police and fire departments to increase diversity on their forces. The police department has been working to do so while it fills vacancies left by officers who took the borough’s early retirement incentive, officials have said.

Malicki and Murray said they are planning a meeting with the Cultural Council as well.

The two of them attended a seminar last month on diversity and retention in fire departments, where they heard firefighters in one town had trouble responding to a fire at a Spanish-speaking household.

“When they got to the fire, nobody knew how to talk to them,” Malicki said. “We do need the diversity there, definitely, just for the language barrier alone.”