Feb. 20 2019 09:56 AM

Top officials sacrifice diversity amid paramedic shortage

The city said Claretta Duckett-Freeman did not qualify for a firefighter’s job in 2018, when it apparently hired all white men.


Claretta Duckett-Freeman is determined to be one of the first black women at the Lansing Fire Department.


After working several years as a medic in the U.S. Army, Duckett-Freeman was quickly attracted to the fire service. The starting wage was decent. Saving lives had developed into her passion. And the second-largest fire department in the state was looking to bring in more than a dozen new employees last year. It was a no-brainer.


But a stark warning from her would be superiors led to some hesitation. Duckett-Freeman said multiple officers within the upper echelons of the department — including former Assistant Chief Bruce Odom — had told her point-blank before she applied: Racial tensions are a critical concern at the Lansing Fire Department.


“It’s probably more of a cultural issue,” Odom later explained to City Pulse. “You still have the good ol’ boys type of club going on over there. Is racial discrimination a part of that? Yes. That’s all part of it. You have racism, cronyism, nepotism, all types of -isms. This really boils down to a cultural issue within that department.”


Fire departments nationwide have long struggled to attract minority candidates. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 95 percent of all firefighters are men and 85 percent of them are white. In Lansing, it’s 92 percent men, 71 percent white, according to the city’s Human Resources Department. And as Odom explained, those fire departments can be slow — if not outright unwilling — to adjust to cultural changes.


“Those concerned about addressing the issue need to do actually something about it,” Odom added. “What I’ve seen across the board is a lot of talk and no actual show of effort. Basically, we have people just reproducing the same practices that created this problem. People can talk about making changes, but it’s just not happening.”


Duckett-Freeman completed her emergency medical technician training, but without immediate state certification she was unable to formally check all the boxes to meet the city’s criteria last year. She was disappointed, but not totally deterred — at least until she saw the photo of those who were hired instead.


“Every one of those firefighters were white men,” Duckett-Freeman said. “There wasn’t even a white woman. That’s when I knew something was wrong. If you look at previous years, it just wasn’t like that. The staff was more diverse. How do you go from years of having people of color to none? That doesn’t happen by accident.”


That contrasts with the department’s hiring record in the last three years of the administration of former Mayor Virg Bernero. Officials said 56 firefighters were hired between 2014 and 2016, Bernero’s last year in office.


Of those, at least 22 were minority candidates, meaning they identified as anything other than white men. Precise statistics weren’t available for last year’s hires, but city officials were roundly disappointed with the lack of diversity. And photos helped showcase the problem.


The latest class appears to be composed entirely of white men. Former Interim Chief Dave Purchase suggested one could be Hispanic. A Freedom of Information Act request for a more specific tally wasn’t immediately returned to City Pulse, but it’s clear that efforts to diversify the department had somehow taken a backseat.


So what changed?


Before former Chief Randy Talifarro abruptly resigned last year, he was dedicated to creating more opportunities for women and people of color within the department — specifically for those who lived in Lansing. At the time, more than 70 percent of his employees were living outside the city, he explained.


The hiring protocol was revamped to reduce heavy-lifting requirements for hoses and ladders, ultimately allowing women to have a better shot at meeting the physical rigors of the job. Less emphasis was placed on certificates and formal training; Talifarro said he instead hired more people who were simply “fit for the job.”


Licensed paramedics require far more training than standard EMT certification. The Lansing Fire Department doesn’t necessarily require that level of expertise, but it’s strongly preferred. Talifarro favored on-the-job training over those formal requirements, and it expanded (and greatly diversified) the applicant pool in the process.


“They needed to be a part of the community,” Talifarro said. “If we only focused on technique and tactical things, we’d miss out on a big part of what it takes to become a successful paramedic and firefighter. We needed people with empathy and cultural sensitivity. That’s what we focused on when we put together a hiring plan.”


The bar wasn’t necessarily lowered; it was just widened to allow more flexibility in the hiring process. Those without EMT certificates were given a chance to work at the department (with smaller paychecks) while they continued their training. All told, 18 trainees — including 10 minorities — were hired and later became EMTs.


As a result, the Fire Department was casting a wider net, attracting people of color who lived in the city but might not have necessarily had the wherewithal to undergo the typically expensive training to become a firefighter. Unprecedented strides were made to diversify the department, but Talifarro said it ultimately cost him his job.


“The union leadership wanted the paramedic licenses and fire certifications to be the only consideration in hiring,” Talifarro said. “They were less concerned about other issues. I think diversity was one of those issues.”


International Association of Firefighters Local 421 President Eric Weber initially declined to comment about closed-door negotiations regarding hiring practices. He contended the union had a good relationship with Talifarro, but later he noted that he had to seek a court-ordered cease and desist notice against Talifarro for publicly discussing details within his personnel file.


“He was asked to leave and he’s not happy about it,” Weber added. “People are entitled to their opinions. I’m not going to do tit for tat in the media. The Fire Department is steeped in a tradition of inclusion for all people. We do not have racial tension within the department. As a whole, we’re a united group. We work together.”


But Talifarro said the union ultimately pressured him to lift his rigid preference on local hiring and diversity in exchange for more highly skilled and fully trained paramedics. And that continued pressure ultimately played a factor in his decision to resign, he said. Talifarro left in June. Odom followed him out the door in August.


“Racial tensions are introduced when there’s a perception that you only changed the standards for diversity,” Talifarro said. “Of the 18 people trained, eight of them were white. It wasn’t just for diversity. It became very apparent that people in the union leadership just weren’t comfortable with this new direction we had taken.”


“There was very little to no support across the board, and I’m at a point in my career where I just don’t need to deal with that. I’ve been in the service for 35 years, and I can recognize when there might be other agendas here.”


Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, who took office last year, named Purchase as the interim chief in Talifarro’s absence. He filled in for several weeks before he left last month, but Purchase helped navigate the department through the next round of hiring. Talifarro said Purchase was also tasked to repair the widening rift between the department and the union.


Purchase said Talifarro’s hiring scheme — paired with several retirements — had ultimately tipped the department into crisis mode. Advanced Life Support ambulance calls legally require a licensed paramedic to be on board. And with the comparatively watered-down hiring requirements, paramedics were becoming scarce.


“These guys were just overworked,” Purchase explained. “If we didn’t quickly infuse the system with some additional paramedics, it was getting to the point where we wouldn’t have ambulances leaving the garage. It was putting this added stress on the system, and we needed to be able to properly staff our rigs first and foremost.”


Enter the paramedic class of 2018. Schor, after ordering racial sensitivity training for the department and launching the city’s first Diversity and Inclusion Commission, was obviously disappointed with the results. Nobody intentionally whitewashed the department, he said, it just needed qualified paramedics on staff.


And none of the minority applicants — including Duckett-Freeman — could meet the new standards, he said.


“My priority was hiring paramedics so that we can have ambulances on the road. Diversity is a goal, but having ambulances respond is a requirement,” Schor said. “I was disappointed with the lack of diversity in that pool.”


Subsequent plans to launch a cadet program are still in the works. Schor and Purchase suggested the Fire Department could do more to reach applicants from a younger age to develop an early passion for the job.


The plan: Attract diverse candidates from local schools and prepare them for a lifelong career with the department.


“The goal is to get Lansing residents involved and wanting to be a part of the department,” explained Interim Chief Michael Tobin. “It’s difficult for the fire service in general — diversity out of the question — to attract candidates. Everyone is having these difficulties. There is just a shortage of people. Period.”


Tobin is filling in until March, when the city’s new fire chief, Michael Mackey, arrives from Palm Beach County, Florida. Taliferro is African-American. Tobin and Mackey are white.


While future plans could someday build on Talifarro’s diversification efforts, many said the latest class, regardless of the looming paramedic shortage, is a step in the wrong cultural direction. Racial tensions were already burning within the department; an all white class of firefighters just allowed the blaze to continue its spread.


“Everything that Chief Talifarro had headed and I didn’t agree with the agenda.”


Talifarro said Bernero was also a champion for racial and gender diversity.


As for Schor? “I’m a show-me person,” Talifarro said. “If you truly value diversity, then show it in your results. It would’ve been much easier for me to just not make any of these changes. But to just say we tried and couldn’t do it? That’s unacceptable to me. If diversity is truly important, that would be reflective in the people you’re hiring.”


Schor said any candidates that may have identified as minorities during the interview process were ultimately unqualified for the job.


Duckett-Freeman is still training to become a paramedic in hopes that she can someday nab a job at her hometown department. While she didn’t make the last round, Purchase said he still expects up to 40 percent of the workforce to retire by 2021. And Duckett-Freeman still spots an opportunity on the horizon.


“I live here,” Duckett-Freeman added. “There is going to be racism wherever I go. Honestly, I just want to work in my community. This is my home. These are my people. I don’t think it’s fair to say this issue is only going at the Lansing Fire Department. We just need more compassion, more knowledge and to be more open minded.”