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Firefighters' Union Says Chief Lowering Recruitment Standards

Austin Fire Department truck
Image by Callie Hernandez for KUT News
The chief of the firefighters' union is accusing the chief of excessively lowering recruitment standards to make the force more diverse.

Austin Fire Association President Bob Nicks believes that Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr is setting the bar for job applicants too low in an attempt to increase diversity. Nicks says he will file a formal grievance with the city tomorrow.

Currently, four out of five firefighters are white. Women make up only five percent of the force.

The fire department has an extremely rare opportunity to change that. It has about 100 positions to fill. But not everyone agrees on how screen the candidates.

“We feel that a fair exam is going to bring diversity into the department,” Austin Firefighters Association president Bob Nicks told KUT News.

In a public letter to Chief Kerr, Nicks accuses her of making part of the entrance exam too easy by combining two separate tests, a psychological and a cognitive exam, into one.

It means a candidate could fail what Nicks says is the more difficult cognitive test, but still pass if they can ace the psychological exam.

“I believe the chief may be fearful that it’s not going to increase diversity like she would like to, so she’s making a run towards a lowering of standards to obtain that. And it’s not necessary,” Nicks said.

The fire department says Chief Kerr was not available for an interview because she’s stuck in the Northeast with spotty cell phone coverage. But Assistant Chief Harry Evans told KUT News that AFD has chosen a process that strikes a balance between seeking to increase diversity while screening for the best candidates.

“We want to make sure we have the best and brightest that are delivering the service to the community as firefighters for the Austin Fire Department. And we want to make sure that we have a process that’s fair and equal to all,” Evans said.

The fire department says it received more than 5,500 applications for the 100 jobs available. The first exam date for cadets is January 11.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.