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The fire department in Richmond, B.C., is trying to repair its reputation, damaged by a series of sexual harassment complaints.

Richmond's fire and rescue service in B.C.'s Lower Mainland will try toimprove its tarnished public image by hiring more women and visible minorities, a city spokesman says.

"The workplace for many, many years has been predominantly white male," said Ted Townsend, a senior spokesman for the City of Richmond.

"We are looking to apply to the human rights tribunal to do targeted hiring, which would allow us to give preference to women and visible minorities," he told CBC News Online Friday.

Last year, Richmond Fire-Rescue Department was criticized by a mediator after four women quit, alleging sexual harassment.

Mediator Vince Ready said he observed a culture in the fire department that was "juvenile and hostile" toward women. He said that hostility presented a barrier to women's advancement, and even left them afraid to go to work.

Townsend said the department now has 191 firefighters. Two are women, and less than 10 per cent could be "categorized as visible minorities."

According to the 2001 census, he said, 60 per cent of Richmond's population is made up of visible minorities, making it the highest percentage of any city in Canada.

The city's plan is to have a workplace that is more representative of the community, Townsend said.

"We don't have a specific time period for this policy, and we don't have specific targets in terms of how many women or how many visible minorities."

'White men are still welcome'

Regardless of gender or background, all applicants will have to meet the same physical, training andpsychological-testingstandards,Townsend said.

"White men are still welcome to apply," he said.

"We don't anticipate that we will be able to fill all the positions that we have with women and visible minorities."

The plan has yet to be approved by city council or the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

There will be lots of jobs opening up in the department, Townsend said. Some will be filled in the spring, new positions will be created through 2007, and a lot of retirements are expected over the next few years, he said.