I read this the other day, this makes some great points. I thought to myself the person who wrote this will be in a whole lot of trouble, when the supervisors read this, but the article is true.

Feb 1, 2010

By Kelly B. Jernigan

This commentary is in response to “A Matter of National Security” by Joseph B. Muhammad of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters (IABFF) (Fire Commentary, September 2009). Wait, what? There is such a thing as the IABFF? Isn’t that what the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is for? The advancement of firefighters? Not black firefighters, not white firefighters, not female firefighters, not Hispanic firefighters, but FIREFIGHTERS? Aren’t we all one in this profession?

After reading the article during lunch, I continued my daily duties at the firehouse, which included training. During training on a new piece of equipment, I ended up at the computer looking up technical specification questions that arose with our hands-on ventures. I did not find what I was looking for, but my search endeavors led me to the forums on the Fire Engineering Web site (www.fireengineering.com) regarding discrimination in the fire service. The topic was not as popular as I originally thought. I was expecting an infinite number of search results written by anyone who had an opinion on racism and diversity. However, very few of these articles were of any relevance to the fire service.

In the forums, I discovered the same type of promotional test controversy in Houston, Texas. I searched for the case and found the article “7 Black Houston Firefighters Sue, Say City Exam Biased.” Similar to the New Haven 20 case, Dennis Thompson, the lawyer for the black firefighters in Houston, argued the tests were unfair. “Firefighters trying to attain the rank of captain and above in the Houston Fire Department must take a 100-question multiple-choice test. Numerous studies show that blacks as a group do less well on high-stakes tests,” Thompson said. He also stated, “Fire departments should use cognitive tests only as a pass-fail benchmark and also should focus on performance exercises and other criteria.” (Carolyn Feibel, Houston Chronicle, February 6, 2009)

Captain Otis Jordan, president of the Houston Black Firefighters Association (HBFA), said, “We don’t do as well on these multiple-choice tests.” He also stated, “I compare fighting a fire, riding an apparatus, to playing football. Your best athlete might not be the straight-A student.” Statements such as these say to me Jordan believes black firefighters are not as intelligent as those of other races. It sounds like these lawyers and black firefighter associations are trying to prove their point by making their own race look bad. The HBFA was not affiliated with the lawsuit.

If I were black, I would be irate at this lawyer or this group for saying I am not smart enough to take the same test as other races. I know if I were involved in a female coalition and it represented me with this argument, I would definitely ask for my dues back.

I agree there are credible accusations and incidents of discrimination, many of which aren’t officially stated or do not make it past the initial grievance procedure. Some of these situations fall into the same category as the New Haven 20 “reverse discrimination” lawsuit, and the individuals involved don’t have the money or the time to challenge city government. They would rather go on and do their jobs as firefighters and hope things are improved by someone high enough wanting to do what is right for the department.

Enough on the discrimination issue. I had to finish some things around the station, eat supper, and do the daily rituals before calling it a “workday” at the firehouse. Still, I couldn’t get this situation out of my mind. After many long hours pondering the subject of the New Haven 20, Houston, and even my own fire department, I have come to this conclusion: We need less diversity in the fire service.

Yes, I said it, less diversity. Let me explain. In my mind there are two types of people in the fire service—there are firefighters and there are people who work for the fire department.




Firefighters are people of all races, religions, walks of life—male and female—who live their lives for the fire service. They are the people who dreamed their whole lives about becoming firefighters or have been introduced to the lifestyle and fell in love with it. Firefighters are the ones who take the extra initiative to produce and conduct training, constantly learn new things about the fire service, and make suggestions on how to make the job safer and more efficient. Firefighters are the ones who worry about brotherhood and watching out for their fellow firefighters at all costs. Firefighters are the ones you want beside you when it hits the fan deep inside a building, when you are searching for the small child or elderly person and the smoke, heat, and fire are banked down so low it feels like your body is going to melt. Firefighters will be there with you until the end.

Firefighters, when deciding to advance up the career ladder, will study promotional materials during every spare moment. They prepare for the tests, and most do well. But if they don’t, they blame no one but themselves, knowing that even though they may not be good test takers, they should have prepared more and studied harder. And by doing this, the next time they will do better.

Even as chiefs or company officers, it shows if your heart is in the fire service. Chiefs and company officers whose first love is the fire service are the ones who know the fire department is unlike any other department in the city. The fire department doesn’t bring in as much revenue as the police department or Collections, but it is a necessity.

Fire officers who fall into this category are not afraid to ask for what their people need. They are not afraid to be the rogue avengers, to take on the city managers and convince them what the department needs to be the best and the safest. They are the ones worried about the times when we have to make split-second decisions and knowing they are the right decisions, not about the things that we can go back and look up while sitting behind a desk.




On the other hand, you have the people who work for the fire department. These are people who saw the ad in the paper for the fire department agility test and decided maybe working for city government would be better than working at a fast food restaurant. Fire department employees are also people of all races, religions, and walks of life—male and female. These are the employees who arrive at work at the last minute, abuse sick time, and never read or study to better themselves. They are the ones who do just enough to get by. They can usually quote verbatim the policies and procedures because they often use them to their advantage to see what they can get away with doing or not doing.

Officers who are fire department employees are the ones who are more worried about proper supervisory methods and how to do paperwork. While these tasks are extremely important and must be mastered, learning how to operate efficiently and aggressively on the fire scene, in my opinion, is an art that must be learned first and foremost. We have all seen the type—officers who are great at doing administrative duties and paperwork but on the emergency scene are ineffective to the point of being inept. They are the ones who look good in the administration’s eyes because they never want to rock the boat. They never want to go against the grain to offer any new suggestions, even if those suggestions are for life safety. These officers will never stick their necks out and have to be on the defensive or give justification for having to go against policy for doing what it took to save a life.




When you meet people in the fire service, you can talk to them for about 10 minutes and tell if you are talking to firefighters or people who work for the fire department. You can tell if they are genuinely interested in taking the promotion to better themselves along with hopes of bettering the department or if they are just interested in the status and the pay raise that come with the promotion.

To put it in perspective, look around at some of the females in the fire service. I use this analogy because I can’t be labeled as prejudiced if I talk about my own kind, right? Are they firefighters or just females who work in the fire department? When the alarm comes in, do they have that “Let’s go get it, guys” attitude, or do they kind of hang back, hoping someone will take the lead? Are they the drivers who, when the announcement comes over the radio, “Smoke and heavy flames visible,” you hear the engine brake kick in, or are they the ones the officer has to call into the office after returning from the call and tell them, “Slow down, we can’t do anything if we don’t get there”? Do they expect and demand to have separate quarters all their own, or do they strive to be one of the guys? Do they become sensitive when the word “fireman” is used instead of “firefighter,” or is that how they introduce themselves, only to be corrected by the public?

A firefighter who happens to be a female is the one who doesn’t care about special treatment. She expects and demands to be treated equally—not better, equally.

You can talk to Blacks, Hispanics, and all the other races and tell the same. Black and Hispanic firefighters are no different from any other firefighters. They love the job. They are firefighters first and foremost.

It’s the same situation no matter who you are. It may be different in general industry, but as much as we preach diversity, understanding differences, and equal opportunity, it all boils down to one thing in the fire service: Are you a firefighter or just someone who works for the fire department?




Imagine working for a department with all firefighters. Very few disciplinary procedures would be needed. If there were discipline, it would be for a minor infraction such as broken glass at the station from friendly horseplay. Everyone on the fire scene would know what they are supposed to do without being told, and they would know how to do it.

We would have chiefs who are looked up to by everyone because they would be in that position because they deserve it, not because they know how to dress up a resume. They would not be afraid to take on the budget committees and city councils to get the money their firefighters need to be the best fire department in the state instead of thinking it will make them look good if they can turn in extra money at the end of the year.

We would promote based on validated test scores, time in service, work ethics, past appraisals, and coworker recommendations. Promotions would not be based on diversity quotas or a friend taking a good friend to the top. In return, once people realize how promotions work in the department of firefighters, and if they wanted to be promoted, they would step up and produce all year, not just around promotion time. This is the reason we need to join together and express our desires to hire and promote individuals who are not only good employees but who are great firefighters or who are the type of officers we want to work for or strive to be like. Let’s do away with hiring employees and start hiring people who genuinely want to be firefighters.

So next time you’re thinking of becoming a member of an ethnic or gender-specific organization so you can get help with screaming, “I didn’t get promoted because of my color, gender, ethnicity, or religion,” think about what class you represent. Are you a firefighter, or do you just work for the fire department?

Kelly B. Jernigan is a 19-year veteran of the fire service and a captain on Winston-Salem (NC) Fire Department Truck 2. She is a former deputy chief and training officer with the South Lexington (NC) Volunteer Fire Department. Jernigan is a level II fire service and live burn instructor for the North Carolina Fire and Rescue Commission. She is a certified hazardous materials specialist and a rescue technician rope specialist. She was also the fire and rescue coordinator for Davidson County Community College for 10 years and has an associate degree in computer programming.


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I read this article in the magazine and I agree with the points made here. I don't understand the reasoning for "secondary unions" within an organized negotiating union. My limited understanding is organizations like the Vulcan societies and so forth are for the representation of the members, predominately of one race, but the wages, hours, and working conditions are still negotiated through a recognized union, typically the IAFF. Perhaps in the past there was a need for such organizations, but many of the claims seen coming forth about biased tests and so forth are mindboggling to justify.

I took the test for FDNY and I did not really study for it, but IMO the FDNY test was by far the easiest written test I have ever taken. I have a tough time understanding where anything is biased on such a test and to claim some type of bias, to me, is mindboggling to justify. If one can not do simple math, basic reading and grammar, basic comprehension, then how can something be so biased towards a single race?

Testing aside, the question of this thread is about "Less diversity being needed in the Fire Service". Less diversity? From who's standpoint? The average firefighter working on the floor, or the bean counters and political types who run the show? I can say that a majority of firefighters would state they don't care about skin color, race, creed, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, what ever......what they do care about is someone who can do the job and came about the job fairly, by means of work ethic and abilities, not social status. In the minds of the folks running the show, who have no clue about the job in and of itself, will like to say "We want the departments to "reflect" the demographics of the community".

What gets me about "reflecting the demographics" is the simple fact you can not make people test for such jobs, so when the push becomes diversity, you may see a decline in standards. This is the crux of the issue of Affirmitive Action in many cases, the problem is that lower standards also produced lower quality candidates, however, such cases like the NewHaven case, Chicago and so forth is starting to show a trend that skin color and diversity may not be as important as once thought. It shows that such standards meant to reduce discrimination and promote fairness has instead created discrimination and decreased fairness. In such cases as mentioned, it is not "reverse discrimination", but discrimination plain and simple.

So to address the original question..."Is LESS diversity needed in the Fire Service".... In my opinion, NO. What is needed is a true equality based upon the best scores and the best overall candidate.....FAIRNESS. As mentioned, the majority of firefighters don't care about who they work with as long as they can do the job and didn't need a special break to get on. In fact the fire service, and all public service, should perhaps mirror that of the military. The higher your ASVAB in the military, the better job opportunities available. If you want to promote, you study and those with the best evals, scores, etc are promoted. Funny, I can't recall in my years of service where the ASVAB or a promotion exam was deemed biased.
Here's my take on your take. The firefighters of today [not most, but some] are about putting in their time and moving on.

That's true in the fire department but also in the police department, highway department, the school system (well, maybe a bit more of them are just putting in their time) and practically any other place of work you can think of.
I have never worked as a pro FF. Been volly all my life. When I joined back 78 my fire department was known as a Black Fire Company. While we took pride in that we strived to become known as A fire department. It went from those BOYS at 30 to those GUYs to finally the FF's at 30.

Have we suffered for being black? At times, having a chief tell nigger jokes at county meetings to being taken off runs because we would beat companies in to just not being called. There was this "hidden" racism. Say us and another company were close to the same distance, they would get called before we would.

Over time we earned the respect of other fire companies and ended being called for cover ups by every company in the county (21). We have covered over 35 stations in the four state area. Our issues now are the same that other companies have. If we're not called its not because we're black its because someone screwed up. If we miss up its not because we're black its because we screwed up.

As far as test go, education now has given everyone the same CHANCE to learn. Saying We as a people don't take test well is like saying we as a people have bigger...well that one might be true.....But you know what I'm saying. I did poorly in school, most people would be surprised to find out I have a GED because I left school early. It wasn't because I was black its because school bored me. I was the only black taking the GED test.

Is there still racism in the fire service...YES. We are the fire service. We need to stop it. When I applied as a 9-1-1 call taker I ranked 26 out of alot. I was hired because I was the highest ranking black on the list. Should I have ranked 26. No, I seen who was hired before me and I know they didn't have the skill and experience I did. I fought to have the test changed because 75% came down to personnel opinion. I thought it was strange that they can tell me why every single Black person quit or got fired but couldn't do it for whites. For three years I was one of 2 blacks in the communication center until they finally started hiring minorities.

I could have sued and taken them to court or made a big stink. But I worked from the inside. When you see something wrong say so. If someone else does it, listen to their side of the story. You might understand why thier doing it.

I rambled a little (maybe alot) but what I'm trying to say is that racism does still happen within the fire service. Things are 89% better then when I started in 1978 and 99% better then when my fire company was founded in 1949. Its the 8% that needed to be taken care of and the 3% that will never go away. We are the fire service. We make things happen. Most issues can be taken care with a sit down civilized talk. Make a deal, because a deal is one both parties agree but no one is happy.
It always boils down to the one word that many don't want to hear: Education.

Any job that requires pre-employment testing is always designed to select those that are the most capable. No magic there, every employer wants to hire those candidates that are the most qualified. But there are those that would rather treat the symptom -entrance qualifications- than the disease -lack of a fundamental education.

Building a hamburger is far less challenging than disassembling a rifle or putting out a fire. And a person qualified to build a hamburger may already be at his or her highest level of ability (The military can always use hamburger builders). Lowering standards in other occupations simply for the sake of heterogeneity means that eventually a particular workforce will all be at the level of the hamburger builder.

So the issue of diversity is a red herring. There may in fact be fewer minorities in a particular occupation but, in 2010 the reason is a simple one: Lack of ability. (Granted that in decades past simply being the wrong race or gender may have precluded one from getting hired but those days are past, mostly.) Work to increase a person's ability beforehand and heterogeneity will occur naturally.
Whether we are white, black, yellow, green, male, female, gay, bi, straight, christian, atheist, buddhist ... it doesn't matter. These (and many others) are titles assigned or given; they are not who we are! Let's quit using them to say whether someone is qualified for a job. Let their education, experience, knowledge, skills - things of importance - be the deciding factors in whether they should be hired; not some lame-a** title.

I am proud to be a public servant. I don't sit around twiddling my thumbs, waiting for retirement to roll around; memorizing stupid bits of HR poli/proc crap ... It is a common picture you see and one which pisses me off - a lot! We have a duty to our citizens to give it all we have every day we are there on their dime.

Okay ... Pollyanna getting off her soapbox.
I think the way Mike phrased it is generally more true of other professions, and the way I phrased it is generally more true of the fire service. That is to say, most firefighters love their job and are not simply putting in their time. That's probably not true, at least to the same extent, in other professions.
There sure is racism in the fire service. I should have been hired at least two years before I actually was, but lower-ranking blacks on the list were hired ahead of me.

I'm with you, Craig. "We need to stop it".

There's no shortage of guys like the ones you talked to in Schenectady, and they may have very valid reasons for being "disgruntled", but most paid guys will still tell you this is the greatest job in the world. (Right up there with being a pro golfer and/or porn star).
I know folks can get frustrated with all the BS from City Hall and become apathetic about the job. The one profession in public service I have yet to see it (here at least) is firefighters/EMS folks ... or maybe the crews are really good at hiding the bodies!!

You guys keep doing what you do the way you do it: rockin', rollin', balls to the wall!! The only way to be!!
They might have good reason to bitch, but they should not do it in front of their FF's if they are an officer or in front of young guys. Schenectady is no different from Spokane. In my experience, and on our job we have had a lot of cuts, layoffs, shitty chiefs and BCs, no leadership, lousey politicians broken and worn out equipment. But none of that overcomes the great job we have. Eight days a month, full benefits and a fantastic wage! Come on quit complaining, if something is wrong fix it, if you don't want to do the work to fix it then shut up! When we go out the door we have a job to do, slap a smile on your face or go sell shoes.
You have it right Chris. Your color, religion, sex ... none of it should matter. If you don't measure up with skills and knowledge, you don't measure up! Firefighting/EMS is an exacting field requiring the best of the best. Nothing less will, or should ever, do!!
I have commented on this subject in the past and got alot of positive comments on it (i cant remember where exactly so if someone knows- repost it here please) "SIGH"-When I was 5 I told my father, when I grow up, i'm gonna be a firman. He told me that I knew that no colored folks were allowed in the fire department...wow look how far we've come. I am a proud member and supporter of the IABPFF not as a black sepratist assocation, but as an an association that encourages excelence in minorities. KELLY, GET YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT, To use an old black saying, "YOU NEED TO COME CORRECT". The IAFF is a COLLECTIVE BARGANING UNIT and the IABPFF is a FRATERNAL ASSOCIATION of black firefighters formed in 1970 to address the lack of and in some cases the outright ban of minorities in the fire service. Today their goals are varied but still strive to create diversity. To bring the IAFF in on a subject as volitile as this is a little dangerous. As for race, the IAFF at one time in my carrear banned black members-but thats water under the bridge and i shall drop it there. Lets get to modern times. As far as testing goes I became (the first black offcier in my county) by education, testing, recieving many state certifications and being interviewed and having my tactical qualifications evaluated. In my 24 years I have never been handed a fire service test that I could not pass. As for what's happened in other areas of the country I will say that NOT promoting a group because "not enough blacks passed the test" is the most stupid reason i have ever heard. Promoting people because of skin color is dangerous to the fire service and the public they serve. Does it happen that way? HELL YES. How do you solve it? INDEPENDANT THIRD PARTY TESTING. As a black man, to suggest that I can only be promoted if enough white people fail an exam results in me taking exams all my carrear (and failing) so i can move up. Why stop there, dont send anyone blacks to death row until a suffcicent number of whites get there. Race based promotions can only result in unqualified people being placed in positions they are not qualified to be in and i take great offence to that. I worked my A** off to get to where i am and i'm still old enough to remember when women cam into the fire service and the BS the at went with that. I have worked with many women that kick A** and did a great job. In the same breath we have some men (black & white) that could not empty an 2-1/2 without reading the print on the bottom. Race testing is out of the question (i'm living proof). For my brothers that read this and get pissed, REDIRECT! Study harder and push for third party testing EXCELENCE EQUALS EQUAILITY and will result in ADVANCEMENT. Remember, the lawyer that got you your last promotion is not gonna be able to save you when you order a master stream through a vent hole and the fire rolls over an interior crew. For the good old boys that like the status quo, "fuggetaboutit", the times HAVE changed, we got blacks and women movin on up and you cant stop it, hell we even have recruits suing because they failed the final and didnt get hired. I welcome any and all comments on this subject and leave you with a line from James Brown- "I dont want nobody to give me nuthin, open up the door, I'LL GET IT MYSELF." may god bless and protect us all and remember, fire dont discriminate

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