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Black leaders weigh in on Fire Department

New fire chief tasked with reversing ‘historical challenges’

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Renewed efforts to bolster diversity at the Lansing Fire Department might be easier said than done.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor recently outlined plans to attract more people of color into the Fire Department. A new chief is set to arrive next month to help put those policies into practice.

Bishop David Maxwell at Lansing’s Eliezer Temple Church, head of the city’s Office of Community and Faith-based Initiatives, said African Americans nationally share an almost universal distrust for uniformed officers, including firefighters, making recruitment a challenge.

“We’re dealing with cultural perspectives and pressures from within African American culture,” Maxwell explained. “Because of some of the historical challenges we’ve had with uniformed personnel, the Fire Department is somehow lumped into that too. People tend to feel the uniform really works against you.”

According to the National Fire Protection Association, about 82 percent of career firefighters nationwide identify as white. Nearly 96 percent are male. U.S. Census figures show the country to be about 13 percent black but African Americans account for about 8 percent of career firefighters nationwide.

The disparity is smaller in Lansing, where 33 black firefighters are 19 percent of the department in a city that is 22 percent black. That difference, though, grew in 2018, after the city failed to hire any African Americans in its new class of firefighters.

That resulted, Schor said, from prioritizing the need for paramedic certification among new hires. Under predecessor Virg Bernero, the city allowed firefighters to train to be paramedics on the job. Schor faced criticism from the former fire chief, Randy Talifarro, for the makeup of the Class of 2018 firefighters.

Under Talifarro, about one-third of all new firefighters had identified as minority candidates. This comes at a time after Schor replaced Talifarro, who is black, with two white interim chiefs and awaits the arrival in April of its permanent chief, Michael Mackey, also white.

Schor has responded with policies that hark back to Talifarro’s time as chief before he resigned last year. A youth cadet program — focused on generating an “appropriate mix” of paramedics and lesser-trained EMTs — is aimed to bolster racial inclusion. The goal: Target a more diverse population for employment and allow them to train to meet the qualifications.

Maxwell praised Talifarro. “He created opportunities. He brought minorities on board by aggressively functioning within the margins and being aggressive with his recruitment. It created a wonderful platform to go forward. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. A lot of that was working.”

“I would’ve loved to have had the option to consider someone else, but if nobody applies, you have to go with what you have,” said Rodney Singleton, an African American who chairs the city’s Fire Board of Commissioners, which screened the finalists and made its recommendation to Schor. “We really could’ve taken more time, but we didn’t see a need. We had a candidate who appears to be a good fit.”

Officials said nine candidates applied to become Lansing’s next fire chief in a nationwide search. Five were eliminated for lacking a college degree.

Human Resources Director Linda Sanchez-Gazella declined to say if any of them were members of minorities. Four white men — including Mackey — were eventually selected as finalists.

Talifarro again questioned the lack of diversity.

“I call on you to set the example,” Talifarro wrote in an open letter to Schor. “It is disappointing, to say the least, and says a great deal about your concept of inclusion. You have a responsibility not to be blind to these matters.”

But, Sanchez-Gazella emphasized, Mackey is simply a byproduct of the problem. The small size of the applicant pool — with limited racial representation — narrowed the hiring options, much like the last class of city firefighters.

“Reaching out to diverse pools of candidates is always a challenge,” Sanchez- Gazella said. “It’s about developing a strategic plan to move forward, establishing communication with different organizations and not just standing at a job fair passing out fliers. Hopefully, these efforts will continue to move forward under this administration.”

A diverse interview panel — including Singleton, Sanchez-Gazella and Pastor PJ Anderson at Space for Grace — further whittled the already limited applicant pool to two finalists. The Fire Board picked Mackey.

“We looked at his experience, of course, but also where he was coming from,” Singleton added, citing Palm Beach County’s size, which at 1.4 million is far larger than Lansing.

“For Chief Mackey, Lansing was kind of a downgrade by comparison. And he was just head and shoulders above the others in terms of experience, education and longevity.”

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue hired Mackey in 1988. He climbed through the ranks to become the interim chief — called administrator there — of a 1,500-employee department last year. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science management from St. Thomas University, a private Catholic school in Miami Gardens, Florida — and plenty of experience related to diversity and inclusion.

Mackey’s predecessor in Palm Beach County reportedly stepped down amid accusations that his department fostered a culture of sexual harassment and racism. Lansing has dealt with its own share of racial tensions, according to former employees. A federal racial discrimination lawsuit levied against the department remains ongoing.

While the interview panel didn’t specifically address racial tensions at the Lansing Fire Department, David Purchase, one of Schor’s interim fire chiefs, said Mackey’s experience with those types of complaints played a role in the recommendation. Toward the end of his time in Lansing, Purchase said he was growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of minority interest.

“The question of diversity was certainly something that was out there,” Purchase added. “We were fully aware that (Mackey) too had worked with programs like what we’re trying to get started here. He already has that under his belt. As the mayor stressed, we need to increase the diversity of the candidate pools across the board.”

Sanchez-Gazella noted that advertisements for positions at the Fire Department are routinely posted with a focus on racial inclusion. The search for Mackey, for example, included an advertisement in National Minority Update, a quarterly publication that focuses on showcasing job opportunities for people of color nationwide.

“Diversity is absolutely critical for the city,” Sanchez-Gazella added. “I think it’s important that the city reflects its workforce. Diversity can also include so much — not just minorities in color but that includes sexual orientation and people with disabilities as well. We have to be inclusive in all aspects. That’s vitally important.”

Anderson, an African American, said applicant pools for first response jobs will take time to adequately expand. Decades of bias among minorities against public safety jobs resulting from mistreatment will need to be reversed. Firefighting can also be a dangerous profession, sometimes making it difficult to attract any candidates at all.

“No African Americans were applying for these jobs. That’s not anybody’s fault,” Anderson added.

Both Talifarro and Singleton have questioned Schor’s latest plans to bolster inclusion — noting a youth cadet program would help attract younger candidates, but not necessarily bolster racial diversity as intended. The overarching thought: If strides were already being made to diversify the department, simply stick to what works.

“I would say we need to go back and reinstitute the program the way it was run under Talifarro,” Singleton added. “Go by the numbers. Look at the numbers. It worked.”

Schor noted the upcoming firefighter cadet program — as well as the city’s Youth Leadership Academy — are intended to reach out to local children, a direct reflection of the community’s diversity. He contended the program will help ensure the Fire Department remains inclusive and representative of the local population.

“This was just the situation that we had to deal with,” said Schor, referring to the shortage of paramedics. “I do want to see diversity in hiring at the Fire Department. I want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, and we have a plan in place to make that happen. We do need to diversify the hiring class, much like we’ve done across the rest of our city leadership.”

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