Brown, Shea, Jefferson, Leveroni. / Town of Arlington photoFrom left are Justin Brown, Matthew Shea, Daniel Jefferson and Stephen Leveroni. / Town of Arlington photo

UPDATED April 6: Justin Brown began his firefighting career at age 40. Born in Boston, Brown has lived in Arlington with his family for 12 years. He has always felt a pull to public service, Brown said in emails with YourArlington.

Even so, he made the decision after high school to pursue a business degree at Northeastern University. As he worked at a few tech companies following graduation, “that pull persisted and continued to grow stronger,” Brown wrote.

In June 2022, he became the first African-American firefighter hired and trained through the Arlington Fire Department (AFD).

Sought fire job 6 years

Brown had sought a firefighter’s position for more than six years. Over that period, he took the state-required civil service exam three times. “I scored in the 90s for the first two exams,” Brown recalled, “but not high enough to be near the top of eligibility list.”

The passing score of the exam is 70 percent, according to Best Colleges.

He didn’t think studying for and taking the exams, which assess firefighting knowledge and physical ability, was instructive in improving his grasp of the job. Still, he persisted.

The third time, he received his highest score, and a plus – a certificate to be an emergency medical technician, or EMT. He got that shortly before the pandemic. Firefighters are allowed one year to secure that after getting the job.

The result: Brown received an interview invitation from AFD.

What firefighters face

Select Board logo, 2019Managing the Edgerton Street blaze in 2021. / YourArlington photo

Steps involved

To reach that point, what steps did Brown, and any prospective firefighter, take?

A firefighter-eligibility list is generated annually for each of the more than 100 municipalities overseen by the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission. It names those who have taken and passed the exams, and it shows a ranking based on their test scores, residency, military status and EMT-certificate level. The fire department is to contact candidates from the top of the ranks.Arlington Fire Rescue badge
'What will never be tolerated is breaking the public trust.'

-- Chief Kevin Kelley

The total number of candidates invited to interview is set in line with the vacancy of the position, which primarily depends on the retirement of firefighters. At the time AFD hired Brown, the town had eight openings, said town Fire Chief Kevin Kelley.

The acceptance rate of the interviewed candidates varies by town. In Arlington, about half of the candidates who interview with the fire department are hired. As Kelley explained, twice the number of job openings plus one person would be invited to the interview. Not everyone contacted comes to an interview, however, he said, adding that sometimes "people decide to do other things in their life.”

The first trait that Kelley looks for in candidates is trustworthiness. “What will never be tolerated is breaking the public trust,” Kelley told YourArlington. “People let us into their home at their most vulnerable time. We have access to everything there. And so [the firefighter] better not be stealing or doing anything [else wrong], you know, it’s trust; it’s being ethical.”

'You just do your job'

Good firefighters are collaborative and generally hold a sense of pride for the profession, Kelley added, and it does not have anything to do with race, ethnicity, gender or any other such demographic categories. “Once we put that mask and helmet on, you know, we look the same. It doesn't matter. You just do your job.”

He said Brown was hired simply because he was a really good candidate. “A good employee makes a good employee; that’s the best way I can answer that,” he said.

Brown said he appreciates the chief's approach: “I’m very proud to have been hired based on my qualifications and all the effort I put forward to become a candidate and ultimately be offered the position. I’m dedicated to working hard and being of value to the fire department and our town.

“I think a person’s dedication and drive, willingness to learn and train, and the desire to help others are some of the things that will determine their impact on this job,”he said.

What are the rules?

Generally, a person must be 31 years old or younger as of the last date to file an application for an civil service exam for firefighters in Arlington, among other 18 Massachusetts municipalities. Local state Rep. Sean Garballey told YourArlington that Brown did not obtain a waiver to bypass the age restriction but was supported by legislation that he and state Sen.Cindy Friedman presented.

Brown finds the job switch satisfying and fulfilling. It has more to do with his own professional fulfillment than anything related to his race, he noted: “I’m now able to help others and serve our community in ways I felt I could not in my previous jobs.”

The Arlington Fire Department was not Brown’s first experience in engaging with local public-service organizations. In March 2020, shortly after getting the EMT certification, he joined the Metro East MRC, an Arlington-based outlet of a national network of volunteers focused on emergency preparedness, as a medical volunteer. Then he volunteered at the Town Board of Health, supporting its testing and vaccination work related to influenza and Covid-19. And he volunteered as a food-delivery driver for the Arlington EATS food pantry from mid 2020 through the fall of 2021.

How he sees local black community

As Brown was spreading his wings of service during the grip of the pandemic, and afterward, what have been his impressions of the local black community? Brown responded that he thinks of Arlington as “fairly diverse” based on his experience working with organizations in town. “With many nationalities and cultures represented across different ethnicities, we experience the same benefits and challenges that exist in any community," he said. "Our town works hard to serve all of its communities, no matter who they are or where they're from.”

In 2000, roughly 90 percent of Arlington residents self-identified as white, according to U.S. census data. By 2020, in contrast, the white population made up only about three-quarters of the town. All minority groups except for “multiracial” and “other” have seen a population increase. This is barely reflected in the recruitment of the Arlington Fire Department.

Inequities exist across the United States
— "in every jurisdiction," according to a town audit
— and recent events in Arlington have proven
that the town is no exception.

-- Report in February of town's first equity audit.
Read a summary here >>

For example, while there are no Asian firefighters serving the town, Asian residents have increased by more than 2,100, more more than half of Arlington’s total increase of population, which is 3,464, since 2000.

AFD currently employs only three nonwhite firefighters, including Brown.

After they are hired, firefighters are trained for 12 weeks at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy. As they go on shift, all Arlington firefighters routinely work 42 hours each week.

“The workload and training [keep] us busy, but there’s no other job I’d rather have.” Brown said.

The AFD is currently budgeted for 81 personnel, including one administrative assistant, two mechanics and 78 firefighters. Kelley considers his department midsized in Massachusetts — larger than average, but smaller than those in Boston, Springfield and Cambridge.

Looking behind town pace to diversity

Does the size of a fire department matter? The top candidates in Massachusetts never come to Arlington, Kelley said during a meeting in his office in October. Kelley added that the top candidates typically would apply to only the large fire departments because of the better pay and career opportunities. “They’re just on the list, but we never see them,” he said.

Monument for Leonard Corbin in Springfield.Monument for Leonard Corbin in Springfield.

Does this explain why Brown is the first African-American firefighter of Arlington? Does it matter that Arlington didn’t have a black firefighter until 2022, --while Springfield hired its first African-American firefighter, Leonard Corbin, in 1969, 53 years earlier? 

Corbin was the third black firefighter hired in Massachusetts. The first, both state and nationwide, P. H. Raymond, joined the Cambridge Fire Department in 1871and steadily rose through the ranks to become the nation's first African-American fire chief. The second, Augustus Henry Murray, became a member of the Boston Fire Department in 1897. Both cities have much larger forces: Springfield has 264 full-time members; Boston has 1,238 firefighters; Cambridge, 274 uniformed firefighters and five civilians. 

A Google search leads a reader to lists of articles featuring black firefighters and their local legacies. In Springfield, firefighters mark their annual tribute with a wreath service by Corbin’s monument outside the Mason Square Fire Station. The monument, unveiled in 2009, the year after Corbin passed away, is engraved with his quote: “I just wanted to be the best firefighter I could be."

In the YourArlington interview, Kelley was mindful about the phrases he chose, pausing several times to rethink the wording of questions and what he had replied. People are sensitive about issues involving affirmative action, Kelley said, and therefore he wanted to express himself clearly. For Kelley, race is not a factor in hiring an employee, though he acknowledged the potential effect of having a racially diverse group of firefighters.

'Extra bonus'

He considered it a plus that Brown diversifies the department, except he regarded it as nothing more than an “extra bonus.” The AFD has two other people of color; both are Hispanics, hired in the past 10 years. 

Kelley thought of this bonus brought by people of color to be more social than racial. Exposing oneself to different life experiences benefits us all, he said. 

He explained that people at the Fire Department are more into their actual job than speaking to the public -- and that includes Brown. “He said [he would talk to the reporter] if it’s good for the department,” said Kelley.

View of president of chiefs association

For another perspective, YourArlington spoke with Chief Jim Vuona of the Shrewsbury Fire Department, who is also the president of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts.

The aspiration to become a firefighter is sometimes a generational drive, he said.

Shrewsbury has a large Indian Asian population, he explained; as he spoke to the community, he learned that some of the community members, the first- or second-generation immigrants, for instance, are not familiar with the firefighting profession and are much less likely to have any family connection or family knowledge about the job. They appear more interested in running their family-owned businesses.

The demographics of incoming test takers is crucial in making the future of civil service. Participating in a study committee called Special Legislative Commission to Study And Examine the Civil Service Law, Vuona said, “One of the things about civil service — it’s basically fueled by whoever took the test.”

He said the exam fee was believed to be prohibiting many people from joining the civil service. Before 2022, it took $400 to take the test; this expense recently was lowered to $75.

Test limits candidate pool

As a standardized test and procedure, the civil service exam aims to eliminate favoritism or nepotism. “It's all meritorious and how you do on the test.” Vuona said, “One of the downfalls is it really limits your candidate pool.” 

Ad for 2022 exam.An ad for the 2022 exam.

The civil service community is mostly drawn from within a given community, cutting back on the chance of hiring outside the area. For example, “Someone from Worcester would be very unlikely to get a job in Shrewsbury, even though the towns are right next to each other,” Vuona added.

To some extent, each fire department appears to operate in accordance with the situation of its own community. For instance, the acceptance rate of firefighter candidates varies in different towns.

In Shrewsbury, only about one-third or fewer firefighter candidates are hired after the interview. The Shrewsbury department recruits full-time and volunteer firefighters (the latter is a part-time position), mostly indoor firefighters who are learning about the job, said Vuona. Currently, the department has 42 full-time firefighters and eight volunteers. 

Affirmative action: remediation, '72 decree

In The Changing Meaning of Affirmative Action by Louis Menand, the author chronicles the evolution of the term “affirmative action” from its birth in the 1960s. One meaning of the term is “Do something.” In this context, “affirmative” means “demonstrate that you did your best to find and promote members of underrepresented groups,” Menand wrote. “Remediation is what affirmative action fundamentally is.”

For police and fire departments under the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission, the ruling affirmative-action law is the 1972 Castro v. Beecher federal consent decree.

According to the Springfield Police Department’s website, the decree took effect in 1975 and directed human resource departments in more than 100 cities and towns in Massachusetts to follow hiring ratios intended to prioritize black and Hispanic candidates for police and fire departments. The municipalities were to be released from the decree when their percentages of black and Hispanic officers reached “rough parity” with the demographics of their own communities.

A few remain under decree

Only a handful of fire departments have not been released from the decree, though the years that most departments were released remain beyond an online search. The Springfield Fire Department was an exception until June 2022, when it was released after its staffing reached 56 percent of firefighters who are black, Latino or Asian. According to the statistics shown on the World Population Review website, fewer than 60 percent of Springfield residents identify as white.

Arlington Town Counsel Doug Heim is uncertain whether Arlington was ever subject to the consent decree. “I assume it was at one point, because most cities and towns were if they were in civil service.” Heim wrote to YourArlington in an email. 

“I’m confident the town has not been under the consent decree to the memory of anyone working in the Legal Department or Human Resources Department – so at least 20 years and likely far longer,” Heim wrote. 

Another view

An article titled "Why The Age of American Progress Ended" by Derek Thompson might shed some light on the broader issues.

“Progress is often political, because the policy decisions of states and international organizations frequently build the bridges between discovery and deployment." Still, Thompson writes, "It doesn’t matter what you discover or invent if people are unwilling to accept it," he wrote.

"To correct this, we need more than improvements in our laws and rules; we need a new culture of progress.” 

June 25, 2022: 4 academy grads join town firefighters, including first African-American


This explanatory-news summary by YourArlington intern Jingfei Cui, who has degrees in journalism and writing from Northeastern University and Emerson College, was published Wednesday, April 5, 2023. The report was updated April 6, 2023, to note that legislation enabled Brown to overcome the age restriction.