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Charlotte fire chief leads outreach effort to recruit diversity
Initiative aims to hire more women, minorities
 
Published Tuesday, October 24, 2017 9:07 am
by Herbert L. White

PHOTO/HERBERT L. WHITE
Charlotte Fire Department interim Chief Pete Key is pushing for greater diversity in the ranks.

Fighting fires wasn’t Pete Key’s career ambition.


In 1977, Key stumbled upon the Charlotte Fire Department as a job when he applied for a spot in the recruit class. It was a temporary fix – or so he thought.

“I really needed a job,” said Key, who grew up in Charlotte’s Clanton Park neighborhood and was appointed interim chief in September. “I just happened upon an application at the old Employment Security Commission, I applied and they picked me. …I didn’t want to be here long. I was trying to get a job to find a job, because back then it would enhance your chances of getting a job. I stayed and stayed and all of a sudden it started growing on me. In essence, I had a calling and a vocation.”

Key, CFD’s first black chief, is leading the effort to recruit more people of color and women in order to better reflect the city’s demographics. The service is taking the approach that it offers a career path to a better future. They are looking for minorities-helping the Fire Department represent the diversity of the city that it serves.  As experienced firefighters retire and the city grows in population, the department wants more minorities and women in its ranks. The recruiting period ends Nov. 3.

Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city with more than 830,000 residents, trails other large cities in the percentage of black and Hispanic firefighters. According to a 2016 Fayetteville Observer article, African Americans comprise 11.5 percent of CFD’s ranks compared to 85 percent for whites and 2.2 percent Hispanic. Women make up less than 2 percent of the force.

Charlotte is 35 percent black, 50 percent white and 13.1 percent Hispanic.

Raleigh’s fire department, by comparison, is 15 percent black and 81 percent white. Durham and Winston-Salem, on the other hand, have more diverse departments at 20 percent and 26 percent black, respectively.

“Our numbers are not where we need to be,” Key said. “We want our numbers to reflect what the demographics are for a major city like Charlotte. We’ve got to be inclusive. The No. 1 goal of the city of Charlotte is the recruiting and retaining of a diverse workforce, and that’s our No. 1 priority as well.”

To accomplish that goal, CFD is doing more outreach with community groups, churches and schools.

“We’re working with churches, we’re working with [recreation] centers, we’re working with the Employment Security Commission, we’re working with [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools]; we’re working with a lot of colleges. We’re looking to increase the numbers, but we’re not opening the floodgates. We want quality people, we want people who want a career and want to stay here. This is a very viable occupation and you can do and be what you want to be.”

Key, a graduate of Olympic High School and UNC Charlotte, rose through the ranks to become CFD’s first black chief. He was promoted to captain in 1983, battalion chief in 1997 and deputy chief in 2004. The service helped him mature and develop traits such as time management that helped his career.

“It’s been quite a journey,” Key said. “It’s allowed me to do a lot of things. …I’ve been blessed. I grew up on the department. I became a man on the department.”

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