Black firefighters appalled by Tacoma fire chief's comments

Several black firefighters say the Tacoma fire department isn't doing enough to recruit and retain firefighters of color.

Tacoma Fire Battalion Chief Brian Hardy addressed the city council Tuesday to express concerns about recruitment and retention of firefighters of color, and express disdain about comments recently made by the city's fire chief.

"When we look at the community, it's a multiracial, multi-ethnic community. All of them pay taxes in the community. We want to offer everyone an equal service and equal opportunity to be employed with the fire department," Hardy said in an interview. "Until this issue is brought to the forefront and dealt with then nothing is going to happen."

During Tuesdays’ citizen’s forum, with the support of black firefighters from Seattle and Tacoma, he read a letter outlining his concerns. They included his antipathy for comments made by Tacoma Fire Chief James Duggan in a recent Tacoma News Tribune article.

Duggan commented on a city policy, which removed a question from city applications in 2015 asking if the applicant has been convicted of a felony in the last 10 years. The goal of the policy is to make city hiring practices more equitable.

In the article, Duggan commented on flagging fire recruits on background checks alone would mean, "We're going to start looking very much like a homogenous white department.”

Retired Tacoma Fire Deputy Chief Jolene Davis, who joined many of the black firefighters Tuesday evening, said the comments infer that recruits of color are felons and white recruits are not. Davis said the comments make the fire department appear unwelcoming to people of color.

"You didn't really have to read between the lines too hard on that one," Davis said. "My stomach sank when I read it especially coming from a chief officer in our department.”

Duggan attended Tuesday’s citizen’s forum to hear the concerns but declined several requests for an on-camera interview.

"I will vehemently deny that I was implying that many minorities that were hired have criminal records. That was not my implication," he said in a phone call. 

Regarding recruitment and retention of people of color he said:

"In all of those fronts we can do better. I don't want to imply that our work is done yet. What I know is that we are a little under 10 percent on women and then for African Americans and Hispanics we are not representative of our community."

Hardy said that is something that he feels when he’s working in the community.

"I actually responded to a call once, and someone looked at me and said I didn't realize we had a black battalion chief in the City of Tacoma," Hardy said.

Both Davis and Hardy say there needs to be a more concerted effort by the fire department.

"What we'd like is a level playing field, and everyone have an equal chance,” said Hardy. “There has to be targeted recruitment, and most of the times you want to see someone that looks like you.”

"I believe that citizens that pay taxes here in our community should have the opportunity to be represented," said Davis.

Duggan said the letter that Hardy addressed to city council “ignores, devalues, and mischaracterized successful efforts to improve firefighter retention.”

“We were losing a lot of our diversity in the EMT portion in the recruit academy, and in the pump portion in the recruit academy so we made incremental changes,” Duggan said. “We went from an initial four-week class to an eight-week class so they [recruits] have more time to absorb material and be successful.”

Duggan said the department is starting a cadet program and is working with high school students to give them more exposure. He said the department also reached out to diverse community partners when a test is approaching.

Hardy said he’d like to follow up his address to city council with a meeting with city leaders.

"With a new city manager on coming on board, we'd like to have a conversation with him or her to address our concerns," Hardy said.

© 2017 KING-TV


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