Globe Editorial

Fire Dept. should limit bias for veterans, not Spanish speakers

May 7, 2011

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BOSTON FIREFIGHTERS are more likely to provide medical aid to an injured victim than they are to fight a blaze during any given shift. That’s why Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser wisely sought a waiver from state hiring laws to ensure there will be 15 Spanish speakers in the incoming firefighter class of 50. For his trouble, he is being challenged by a group of veterans who believe the policy shunts them aside.

The dispute reflects the troubled state of recruitment for the fire department, as its leaders try to repair an overly insular, often hostile internal culture.

For many decades, the Boston Fire Department had been the exclusive domain of the city’s white working class. A federal court helped to dismantle that club in the 1970s with a decree that the department hire one minority firefighter for each white firefighter. But the expiration of that decree in 2003 leaves only one statistically significant preference in place — veterans of the armed services who score 70 or above (out of 100) on the fire test jump to the head of the hiring list.

Hiring preferences of any kind invite grievances and hard feelings. If the Civil Service test corresponds with public safety job performance, then the top scorers should fill the openings. One sensible exception to this policy is language ability. With only about 60 Spanish-speaking firefighters on a force of 1,600, there is legitimate concern that the city’s roughly 87,000 Spanish speakers are not getting the protection they need, especially in medical emergencies. Fraser stressed the department is looking for the language skill only, and doesn’t care about the race or ethnicity of the applicant.

A group of white veterans nevertheless filed a complaint with the Civil Service Commission. They see those 15 hiring slots as theirs. But the absolute veterans’ preference now in place is a lot harder to defend on practical terms. While it is fine to honor a veteran’s service with a few extra points on the test, it makes no sense to propel those who can barely score a passing grade to the top of the list. One good solution would be to use veteran status as a tie breaker. Thus, all veterans who score 100 would be placed before non-veterans with the same score. But no veteran who scores lower — as low as 70, as is now the case — would jump over a non-veteran with a higher score.

Limited preference for veterans is a gesture of appreciation. Occasional preference for speakers of in-demand languages is a necessity.