In September of 1969, black and minority fire fighters of all ranks from municipalities across the United States met in New York City for two days of discussion on the injustices that existed in the following categories: The recruitment of black youth into the fire service, firefighters-community relations with special emphasis on relations with the residents of neighborhoods inhabited by blacks, inter-group relations, practices in fire departments, and the need to improve fire prevention programs in the areas of greatest need. That meeting was very productive and out of it was born the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters.
Black firefighters from Boston attended that meeting and brought back the information that a new association had formed whose purpose was to help them focus on the issues and concerns of their people and community. Later that year (1969), after much discussion and planning, the chapter of “The Boston Society of Vulcans” was formed. When the organization first developed, the Boston Fire Department (BFD) employed 2,100 firefighters, only 17 were black and 1 was Hispanic.
The chapter began to focus on issues of recruitment and prevention. In 1971 an investigation was being initiated by the justice department across the country, that focused on police and fire recruitment/employment. In 1972, Jim Whitted and twelve other black and Latino Vietnam vets from Boston, scored a perfect 100% on the firefighter entrance exam. Despite being at the top of the list, they were never considered, or given a reason as to why. Whitted and the other vets filed a complaint with the justice department, which initiated a state wide investigation into the city and state exam process in Massachusetts. It was later ruled by Judge Freedman that the civil service hiring process, in fact, had a discriminatory impact. It was discovered that: When applicants of color went to apply for exams (especially at fire stations), they were not given, or informed of study materials, applications were often not made available to them and if they were their applications would end up misfiled, or thrown in the trash; testing components were not job related; the exams could not adequately determine more qualified versus a non-qualified candidate; the exam was culturally biased; the exam and recruitment activities were not open to all candidates regardless of race. The final decision of the judge: a mechanism for hiring had to be implemented under a parity formula. Two hiring lists had to be established, one of non-minority candidates and one of minority candidates. For every three white candidates hired off the non-minority list, one candidate of color had to be considered off the minority list. This ruling born what is known today as the Beecher Decree, which has affected police and fire departments throughout the state of Massachusetts. (To learn more about the Beecher Decree, please see here [PDF]).
The decree was a stepping stone for many organizations across the country seeking to achieve employment equality in the public service sector. In 1976, a few individuals from the Boston area envisioned a local non-profit organization of their own. Collectively, Daniel Grant, Whitfield Jeffers, Charles Parris, Lloyd Phillips and Robert Powell, sought to strengthen the organization (Boston Society of Vulcans) so that would now not only oversee the continued implementation of the court ordered consent decree, would grow to meet the ongoing needs of recruitment services, disparate treatment of black firefighters and the public safety concerns in communities of color.
In 1976, The Boston Society of Vulcans joined the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters (I.A.B.P.F.F.). The Society, adopted the IABPFF’s doctrine: PURPOSE & AIMS: To create a liaison between our Black Brothers and Sisters throughout the globe, to collect and evaluate data on all deleterious conditions incumbent in all areas where minorities exist, and to compile information concerning the injustices that exist in the application of working conditions in the Fire Service, and implement action to correct them. To promote interracial progress throughout the Fire Service, and to see that competent Blacks are recruited and employed as fire fighters, where ever they reside, and to aid in motivating our Black Brothers and Sisters to seek advancement to elevated ranks throughout the Fire Service.
In 1976 additionally, the first class from the consent decree entered into the fire academy and consisted entirely of black and Latino firefighters. From the ongoing efforts of the Vulcan Society and other black leaders from that time and organizations, such as the NAACP, the number of black and Latino firefighters grew from 18 in 1969, to more than 500 firefighters of diverse race and gender employed within the Boston Fire Department today. In addition to our mission of making the Fire Service more representative of the diversity of Boston neighborhoods, the Vulcan Society now, also addresses the need for community safety education and programs for high-risk, low-income and bilingual populations through a range of services and programs provided throughout the city.
In 2003, Boston’s decree was vacated, however the job of the Vulcan Society is not finished. Diversity is beginning to erode within the ranks of the Boston Fire Department. And due to a growing and diverse population in Boston, where cultural customs and language barriers can impact safety concerns, we must not only continue to ensure that Boston maintains a diverse public safety force, but that ongoing safety initiatives expand to meet the needs of a increasing multi-lingual and diverse population……Our job and purpose will be needed for years to come……