Escambia County Commissioners will discuss ways to improve the diversity of the county fire department after one commissioner demanded the board confront the issue head-on.
Commissioner Lumon May raised concerns over the diversity of the Escambia County Fire Rescue Department and of the selection committee for the new fire chief during Thursday’s County Commission meeting.
“The reality of it is we do have a problem,” May said. “If anyone has read the reports that we’ve had, there’s been systemic problems from race to sexual harassment. I think there needs to be a conversation from the dais on the direction in which we’re going to go with our fire department.”
In January, the former fire chief, Patrick Grace, was fired after an investigation into harassment complaints made by a female firefighter against a male firefighter revealed Grace failed to document any discipline for the male firefighter.
“I certainly think we must take a closer look at the culture of our fire department,” May said. “I’m tired of putting it in reverse and settling mediation and lawsuits because of having people making mistakes that I ultimately become responsible for.”
May said addressing diversity may be an uncomfortable conversation, but it is one the county needed to have.
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“I know it’s going to be a hard decision, but in Escambia County, in 2018, if you have less than 5 percent of a minority group represented in any department, that causes alarm,” May said.
Escambia County has 175 uniformed firefighters and 143 are white, 11 are black, 14 are Hispanic, two are Native American, one is Asian and four were identified as other, according to numbers provided by County Administrator Jack Brown.
A fire truck sits by during an Escambia County Fire Rescue and Florida State Fire Marshal Bureau of Fire Prevention Christmas tree fire demonstration showing how quickly a live tree can catch fire and damage your home. (Photo: Marketta Davis)
Those numbers put the percentage of black firefighters in Escambia County at 6.3 percent. Nationally, black firefighters make up between 8.4 and 9.2 percent of firefighting forces, according to two different data sets from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the U.S. Department of Labor Household Data Survey.
Only three firefighters in Escambia County are women, a rate of 1.7 percent. Nationally, the number is 4 or 5 percent, according to the surveys.
“We always need to talk about diversity and making sure we have representation in the department that is reflective of the community,” Brown told the News Journal on Friday. “That’s our goal.”
May also said he was disappointed in the diversity of the selection committee for the new fire chief. The committee, which included Brown, was initially made up of five people, four men and one woman — all white.
In an email, Brown said he reached out to an African-American fire chief and female fire chief when he was forming the committee, but didn’t hear back.
He said he thought about asking Ginny Cranor, the newly appointed chief of the Pensacola Fire Department, or a female battalion fire chief from the city to serve on the committee, but decided it would be inappropriate because there were applicants for the county fire chief from the city fire department.
“In retrospect, I should have asked a local African American lay person to serve on the Committee,” Brown said in an email. “This is one of the very few times that I didn’t do that.”
The committee processed the 77 initial applicants and narrowed down the list to seven candidates. When concerns were raised over the diversity of the committee, Brown added Rodney Jones, director of the Florida Region District 1 of the NAACP, to the committee.
Jones was on the committee when it selected the final three candidates for fire chief.
May said Thursday that Jones being on the committee was great but “a day late and a dollar short.”
“If we missed the boat by not having a selection committee that had diversity, and we’re going to add diversity to it, we should’ve gone back and evaluated all of the applicants,” May said. “I’m not advocating hiring anyone. I’m advocating giving opportunity to everyone.”
According to numbers provided by Brown, eight of the 77 applicants were black, one was Asian, three were Hispanic or Latino, three were two or more races, 59 were white and three did not provide the information.
Brown said per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and federal law, all racial information provided by the candidates was kept separate from their applications. Brown said no one on the committee knew the race of the applicants unless they had some personal knowledge of them.
The final three candidates for the position are Stephen F. Cox of South Bend, Indiana; Russell Nail of Melbourne, Florida; and Paul Randall Smith of Mobile, Alabama. None of the final three candidates were from Escambia County — something that May also said was an issue.
“It’s difficult for me to believe that out of all of Escambia County, we don’t have some of the best fire people and some most talented people,” May said. “That they can have the ability to help lead this department, and if we don’t have those people, then our training needs to be enhanced. We need to put some money in for training to make sure we have some people in the pipeline that are being qualified to be groomed to take leadership.”
The search for the new chief was advertised nationally and posted to several job websites from GovernmentJobs.com to the New York Times.
“We’re looking for the best suited among the most qualified, and it was an extremely competitive field,” Brown said.
The final three candidates for fire chief will visit the county April 19 to tour the Public Safety Department, meet local firefighters and conduct a final round of interviews.
Brown said he is preparing a presentation for the commissioners on diversity in the fire department that will either be given during the next committee of the whole meeting Thursday or a later meeting.
“How do we want to be perceived as a county?” May said. “What direction are we going in the county? I don’t think there’s any way to move forward in a progressive way, without first evaluating exactly where you are.”
Jim Little can be reached at email@example.com or 850-208-9827.
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