AUSTIN (KXAN) – The pool of candidates applying to be Austin firefighters in 2013 was the most diverse in recent years, according to an email sent to Austin Fire Department leaders last summer from the head of the private contractor overseeing the hiring at the time.
The email from Dr. David Morris to city fire bosses, including the chief, shows the existing assessment process did not put African American or Hispanic candidates at a disadvantage. In fact, Morris wrote the number of African-American cadet applicants exceeded their diversity within Austin’s population. Traditionally, that has not been the case.
“I am pleased to report that there is no adverse impact against any protected group,” Morris wrote in the email, dated Aug. 5, 2013. Morris runs Morris and McDaniel, a Virginia-based consulting group.
The four-page email was obtained by the Firefighters’ Association through open records requests to the City of Austin and shared with KXAN. The association has maintained there is no need to revise testing rules. The group’s ongoing concern said any revision would ‘water down’ the pool of qualified firefighter cadets at the cost of reaching diversity requirements.
Since late September 2013, all new firefighter hiring has been on hold until the City and Department of Justice attorneys come up with a new hiring plan and agree to it under what’s known as a consent decree. At that time, a federal equal opportunity agency ruled testing the year before in 2012, was discriminatory. Austin Fire Association President Bob Nicks said that year the city made an administrative mistake, setting the length of one test half an hour shorter than it should have been. But the DOJ also ruled the 2013 process (slightly changed from 2012) was discriminatory as well.
The DOJ letter sent to the City’s legal department in September said, in part:
“We undertook this investigation to evaluate whether the city’s selection procedures disproportionally screened out any group of applicants on a protected basis, and, if so if the city could demonstrate that those procedures in fact distinguish between qualified and unqualified candidates.”
City managers were not immediately available Friday afternoon to comment on how the newly revealed August email might affect the timeframe or content of the city’s talks with the DOJ and AFA. Up until now, city legal staff has been silent on requests for interviews as the consent decree talks continue in private.
Full City Council is expected to discuss the result of the DOJ talks on Feb. 27. City staff had put the item on the agenda for Jan. 29, before appeals from Firefighters’ Association leaders argued the consent decree was unfinished, resulting in the agenda item being removed. Nicks said this week the DOJ team presented him with ‘intriguing ideas’ that need further study by all sides.
Austin firefighter vacancies
City records show as of Jan. 29, 2014, Austin’s firefighting strength is down by 54 positions. That excludes four firefighters who will retire by March 15. On average, records show AFD has 36 vacancies per year.
A city fire department spokesperson told KXAN in an email this week, “We are mandated by Council action to have a minimum staffing of 240 firefighters on every shift and we will continue to meet that.
“We carry vacancies every day due to vacations, sick leave, military leave, etc., so this is not a new situation for us to deal with; we’ll manage it as we always have, it may just take a little more work if the number of vacancies gets larger.
“There is no heightened public safety risk,” the official insisted, not indicating the point at which a growing firefighter vacancy rate would create staff overtime fatigue issues and ultimately public safety concerns.
The last class to graduate AFD’s academy was made up of 47 men and women who started working in late July 2013. Since the hiring freeze, hundreds of cadet applicants have been caught in limbo. Some have emailed ReportIt@kxan.com expressing frustration in not knowing when the academy will continue, or in some cases, if they even passed initial testing to allow them to proceed to the next steps.