The Fort Smith Civil Service Commission on Thursday (March 29) voted 3-2 to approve changes to the interview process for new firefighters. Commissioners Marty Shell, Orval Smith, and John Walker favored the request from Fire Chief Phil Christensen while commissioners Robyn Dawson and Charolette Tidwell opposed. Commissioners Chip Sexton, chairperson, and Bob Cooper were not present.
Christensen’s request was to condense the hiring process from candidates interviewing separately between the fire department and the Civil Service Commission and instead create a Fire Review Board containing a minimum of two fire department personnel and one commissioner.
Historically, the department has experienced under-representation of minority personnel. For example, a count from as recently as 2015 found only three of 149 uniformed employees were minorities — far below corresponding data from the United States Census (about 1.9% versus a city demographic of 9%).
Christensen said the fire department has taken steps to reach out to minority leaders to see what they can do to bolster interest in the fire department as a career for minorities. Christensen said he does not have a full-time recruiter on staff, but “I have one captain in the schools a lot. We’ve advertised on the Lincoln Echo, on Facebook. We’re doing everything we can without dragging people in to fill out applications.”
Christensen said applications to join the department are down “across the board” noting five years ago, the department received over 200 applications. In 2017, the number had fallen to 80. From that figure, three applicants were African-Americans, one was Hispanic, and there were no women.
“I don’t know what to do. I’ve reached out. I’ve spoken with some minority leaders in the city, and I’ve reached out to some of the minorities we have on staff,” Christensen said, adding that 90% of employees “are word of mouth,” or go into firefighting because of a family connection or the influence of a friend who works with the department.
“So when minority population is low to begin with, that’s another challenge,” he said.
Christensen also confirmed most of minority failures in the hiring process are due to the written examination, and the department had recently changed testing companies. Additionally, fears of an interview process unfavorable to minority candidates have led the city to look at instituting changes.
In 2017, for instance, candidates being considered in the process interviewed with all five commissioners at once instead of in separate interviews with differing personnel. As Dawson said at Thursday’s meeting, “It’s most important that a single set of people start the process and end the process. If you’re having two sets of interviews by two different groups in two different rooms, you’re opening yourself up to liabilities with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). It’s important to have consistency with the same people.”
As a principal with Fort Smith Public Schools, Dawson said she is involved in the hiring process and said the Civil Service Commission — which she was appointed to in December 2017 — is the “only board or commission that I’m a part of that sits in on the interview process.” Dawson requested commissioners consider pulling out of physical interviews altogether while maintaining their ability to review and approve hiring decisions.
Amending the commission’s rules of operation requires a 10-day notice to the public and media before any further action is taken, so she left it as a request on Thursday instead of making a formal motion.