When Pete Andrews became an Omaha firefighter in 1995, he says he was one of 42 black firefighters.
In 2016 that number has dwindled to 34, which is a little more than 5 percent of the force. And there are no black firefighters ranked above captain.
Andrews, who leads the Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters, says that’s a problem. He and other community leaders say black Omahans deserve more opportunities to become firefighters, and black firefighters deserve more opportunities for promotion.
“It’s a big pie, and we’d like a piece of pie to put our Cool Whip on, too,” Andrews said. “I prefer pie over crumbs.”
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and acting Fire Chief Dan Olsen said the solution is more outreach and mentoring.
Andrews called a press conference Monday to criticize the city’s handling of Joe Salcedo, a battalion chief and former acting fire chief who shared a Facebook post in August saying that President Barack Obama and members of the Black Lives Matter movement are “cop-hating terrorists.”
Salcedo was placed on paid administrative leave but eventually retained his position as the battalion chief in charge of training. Stothert said Monday that multiple firefighters were disciplined for sharing or liking that post. City officials said they cannot share the details of the discipline.
But Monday, Andrews said he decided the incident was merely a symptom of a larger problem.
Andrews said he wanted to focus on pushing the city to hire more diverse firefighters.
City leaders were in agreement Monday that the Fire Department’s racial makeup should reflect that of the community. Right now, the department is not close.
According to the city, of the department’s roughly 650 firefighters, 88.5 percent identify as white, 5.3 percent African-American, 4.5 percent Hispanic, 1.3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 0.5 percent Native American. About 5 percent of firefighters are women.
Compare that with the latest census figures: Omaha’s population is 68.2 percent white, 12.8 percent black, 13.3 percent Hispanic, 2.8 percent Asian, .8 percent Native American or Alaska Native. About 3.1 percent of Omaha’s population is multiracial. And women make up more than half of the city’s population.
Andrews and others pointed to the Omaha Police Department, which has recently embarked on an effort to recruit more minority officers. Chief Todd Schmaderer has said the latest police recruit class is the most diverse ever.
“It’s amazing how the police chief can get it done but the fire chief can’t,” said the Rev. Gregory Ashley, who was at the Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters event Monday.
The city did not immediately have available the racial breakdown of the Police Department.
In 2015 the department reported that its racial breakdown was as follows: 80.1 percent white, 8.1 percent African-American, 8.9 percent Hispanic and 2.9 percent other.
Women make up 18.5 percent of the department’s sworn strength.
Those are higher percentages than the Fire Department but still lower than the city overall.
Since the late 1800s, when blacks were first allowed onto the force, there have been only 155 black firefighters, according to Andrews.
The association is based at the former Fire Station 14 in north Omaha, where black firefighters served before the department was integrated.
Andrews said the black firefighters were often called to do the less glamorous cleanup jobs after white firefighters finished putting out a fire.
In 2002 the city adopted a policy that allowed for special consideration for women and minority hires in the Fire Department. But that ended after two white firefighters sued, saying they were unfairly passed over for promotion.
More recently, in 2010, the association successfully pushed the city to hire an outside vendor to conduct testing.
Police officers and firefighters are hired in Omaha through a regimented process that’s designed to find the most qualified applicants.
First, candidates must pass a written test, a physical ability test and a structured interview.
Those who pass are then ranked based on their scores.
The most recent pool of candidates contained nearly 1,300 applicants, and 381 made it to the next stage. City officials expect to hire 16 firefighters for a recruit class that’s scheduled to begin next spring.
From that list, the chief must interview the candidates in order of their rank on the list. But the chief can hire anyone on the list.
Stothert, Olsen and Human Resources Director Mikki Frost said at City Hall on Monday that the city should focus its efforts on mentoring and outreach.
If the initial pool of applicants reflects the city’s racial and gender makeup, then the new hires will follow.
Mentoring, which already takes place, can also help applicants understand what they need to do to succeed on the test.
“It’s a long process,” Frost said. “And we want to ensure the top candidates stay in.”
Frost also said applicants are asked about their experiences working with diverse populations as part of the testing.
Andrews said those are good things to do, but he wants the city to go further.
He said he wants the city to focus on minority hires when choosing from the list.
He said he doesn’t have a problem with Olsen, who has been serving as acting chief for a few months. But Andrews suggested that the chief consult with a diverse group of people when making hiring decisions.
Andrews also said paid and volunteer firefighters from nearby communities often have a leg up in the testing process, and those communities generally draw from a less diverse base than Omaha has.
Bill Johnson, a black former assistant chief who served as acting chief twice in the 1990s, said the city needs more black firefighters working in administrative rather than fire-suppression capacities.
He said that gives firefighters experience with budgets and City Hall politics, which makes it easier to rise through the ranks.
Steve LeClair, president of the city’s fire union, said he hopes Andrews has sparked a conversation.
“I believe that Pete has certainly raised an issue of great concern that should matter to everybody and especially the people that are doing the hiring,” LeClair said.
Next year the department and city leadership could change. The mayor is in the process of selecting the city’s next fire chief. City elections will be held in May, and the mayor and all seven council members are up for election.
Gray, the City Council president and the council’s representative from northeastern Omaha, said he believes the black firefighters association raised a legitimate problem.
“The community wants to see a reflection of the community and the way things look,” Gray said. “And the community is not an all-white male community.”