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Raleigh's New Fire Chief Committed To More Diverse Department

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Raleigh's new fire chief, John McGrath, reported for duty Wednesday, inheriting a force that some are criticizing for not reflecting the community it serves.

Leaders in the black community saying the department's current makeup is unacceptable with only 12 percent of firefighters being black, even though blacks make up 30 percent of Raleigh's population.

"I think that shows we have work to do. That shows we need to form partnerships with organizations if the city is having difficulty recruiting minorities," said Michael Leach, president of the Raleigh/Apex NAACP.

McGrath, who has more than 30 years of experience with the Philadelphia Fire Department, says a department should mirror the community.

"I'm committed to fairness and inclusiveness," McGrath said. "The fire department is an arm of government, and government is supposed to include everyone."

Even as McGrath commits to a more diverse department, the issue is attracting concerns nationwide.

The International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters wants to put pressure on the city's leadership and help with recruiting.

"We can bring a networking system that currently doesn't exist in the city," said the association's president, Johnny Brewington.

The association hopes Raleigh will gauge its past performance and change its practices.

"If they can help us become a better and more inclusive department, I'm willing to listen," McGrath said.

McGrath, who said the department must show itself as a welcoming organization, is expected to meet with a City Council committee in a few weeks to officially outline his plans for recruitment at the department.

City leaders, however, say change cannot happen overnight because of competition nationwide and low turnover.

"It takes a much longer time to change the complexion of the force, because once an officer is hired, they intend to be here for 30 years," said Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker.

But black leaders say change can start now, especially with a new fire station being built in north Raleigh -- where 15 firefighters will be added to the city's fire-fighting force.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there is an estimated 258,000 firefighters in the United States -- with only 8 percent of those firefighters being black -- a national average lower than that of Raleigh.