A local group that advocates for black firefighters wants the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate what it describes as "systemic discrimination in hiring, discipline and recruitment" in the Baltimore Fire Department.

The Vulcan Blazers wrote a letter Tuesday to Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin outlining the allegations and requesting that his office ask for a Justice Department probe.

"I want them to look at all areas of the Fire Department and find out the reason why African-Americans are not being treated fairly," said Henry C. Burris, president of the Vulcan Blazers.

Neither Fire Chief James S. Clack Jr. nor a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake responded to a request for comment Tuesday evening.

Burris claimed that black recruits are subject to more stringent tests and that black firefighters are punished more severely for infractions than white counterparts. He also said the percentage of black firefighters and recruits is low, and black firefighters are promoted less frequently.

"The low percentage of African-Americans in the Fire Department, I believe, is done deliberately," Burris said. "It's systemic and institutionalized. There's the desire to exclude minorities."

Burris declined to discuss the specifics of the allegations, saying that Cardin's aides had asked him not to reveal his claims publicly until the senator's office had looked into them.

He said that as many as 40 cases involving the Fire Department are pending before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Burris complained that recent recruiting classes have few African-American and female members, despite efforts to increase minority hiring.

In April, Rawlings-Blake announced that the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People would help with Fire Department recruiting efforts to bolster outreach to minorities.

"The fire department has stated that they are working on these issues and the Baltimore NAACP is committed to working with black fire fighters and the city to create a workplace free of discrimination, bigotry and racism," said Tessa Hill-Aston, the chapter president.

Burris said that the racial problems predated Clack and Rawlings-Blake, but that neither had remedied the problem.

Racial issues came to a head in the Fire Department in 2004, when an all-white class was hired. Three years later, a firefighter reported finding a noose in a racially charged incident; city officials say the firefighter later admitted to planting the noose himself.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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