Exclusive interview

Meet Lansing Fire Chief Brian Sturdivant

New top brass to close revolving door of Fire Department leadership

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SUNDAY, May 15 — The newest chief of the Lansing Fire Department is still acclimating to life in the Capital City after wrapping up his second full week on the job on Friday. But for Brian Sturdivant, Lansing is already personal. It’s “home.” And it’s also where he plans to retire.

Sturdivant, 64, took the reins at the Lansing Fire Department on May 2 following a nationwide search process that wrapped up in late March — putting an end to a years-long, rotating lineup of interim chiefs who have served in Mayor Andy Schor’s administration since former chief Mike Mackey resigned in August 2020 and predecessor Chief Randy Talifarro resigned in July 2018.

“The Lansing Fire Department needs strong, steady leadership, and Chief Sturdivant will be an incredible asset to the city,” Schor said last month. “Sturdivant brings years of fire management experience, including extensive work with emergency medical services, training, budgeting and positive relations with fire labor organizations and members. We had two great finalists for this position, but Chief Sturdivant stood out because of his leadership and analytical skills in leading large, diverse departments. I’m excited for him to get here and get started.”

Sturdivant grew up in Battle Creek and served as the chief of its Fire Department for about five years. His fire service career also includes more than 20 years spent in Fulton County, Georgia, as well as another cumulative decade at fire departments in Arizona, California and Virginia.

He’s a graduate of Grand Canyon University, Naval Postgraduate School and the National Fire Service and Command Program at the University of Maryland, as well as a certified public manager and a recent graduate of a municipal leadership program at Harvard University.

Sturdivant’s father graduated from J.W. Sexton High School, so the opportunity to work in Lansing is “personal,” he explained. And as a Black man with personal experience dealing with two decades of racism in the “Deep South,” he doesn't  mince words about the culture of racial discrimination that has long brewed behind the walls of fire departments nationwide.

Lansing Fire Chief Brian Sturdivant
Lansing Fire Chief Brian Sturdivant

Managing Editor Kyle Kaminski sat down with Sturdivant for an exclusive interview last week. Here’s the full Q&A, lightly condensed and mildly edited for clarity and enhanced readability:

How are the first two weeks on the job treating you?

 So far, it’s been pretty uneventful — just a lot of administrative work. I’ve spent a lot of time at City Hall, just signing papers and going through all the benefit packages.

 Have you found a place to live in Lansing?

 I’m staying with some cousins over on Hillsdale Street. I have a lot of family in the area, and I’m trying to get a feel of the land and get connected before I make some permanent decisions.

The wife and I are thinking about moving to Lansing, but it’s not a requirement, and we’re not going to be forced to live here. I’ve lived in every other city I’ve served and would like to follow the same model, but I’m also looking at retiring here — so I haven’t made any decisions just yet.

 Last month, you told me that you had decided to leave your hometown of Battle Creek for Lansing because you wanted a “new challenge” and a “new opportunity.” Elaborate on that.

 It’s more personal than that. My mom grew up in Battle Creek and my dad grew up here in Lansing, so this is where all his side of the family live. It’s personal because we lost both of them in 2017, so this is kind of my way of giving back to the communities that actually shaped me.

 What are your first impressions of the Lansing Fire Department?

Well, there have not been any “aha moments” as of yet, because I did quite a bit of research before I even applied for the position. I wanted to know what I was coming into — and I was already familiar because I grew up here just as much as I also grew up in Battle Creek.

I already knew that there were some challenges with a lack of leadership continuity. Any time you have an organization that has a different leader every several months, it comes with a price — especially for an organization focused on public safety. It creates inconsistencies in policies, inconsistencies in treatment of employees and inconsistencies in terms of the philosophical approach to service delivery in the community. Inevitably, our members will get used to one path and then, when the face behind the wheel gets changed, it upsets the applecart all over again.

There's always a period of adjustment that comes, and that takes its toll on an organization.

Why do you think you were picked over the other two finalists for the job?

I think I was head-and-shoulders above the others in terms of professional experience. I’ve served in a leadership capacity across the country in the fire service. I also think I was the only finalist with a graduate degree. But also, I think it came down to the right fit for the community.

With some of the headlines coming out of the Fire Department over the past few years related to allegations of racial discimination, I think I can bring experiences to some of those areas — especially the buzzwords now of “diversity, equity and inclusion” and some of the disparate treatment that can happen. I think that helped to catapult me to the top of the finalist list.

And when I had my one-on-one interview with the mayor, we connected on that issue. I could relate to his positioning and I was able to understand some of those experiences in Lansing.

You were also upfront about your desire to foster a more inclusive Fire Department at the candidate forum. Do you think the mayor appreciated that willingness to confront these issues?

The discussion that I had with the mayor was very positive, productive and fruitful. He understood my talking points as it related to my personal experiences in the fire service, and he was very interested in some of my thoughts and experiences working with diverse departments.

I’ve worked in communities that are 75% Asian, 95% European American and 80% African American. The mayor was very interested in lessons I’ve learned by working with those levels of experiences in diverse communities and how that can all have a positive impact in Lansing.

I am politically astute without being political, but by no means do I look the other way on issues or sweep things under the rug because 90% of issues are not self-correcting. You either need to get in front of them and deal with them, or they will grow until they become insurmountable.

Do you get the sense that any of the issues here in Lansing are nearly insurmountable?

No, but I think that strong, positive and productive leadership is definitely required. Right now, I’m scheduling meetings with all of my staff and with firefighters — candid discussions. I get the sense that some of them feel as if their thoughts and feelings have been dismissed.

That simply won’t work. That’s not a working model. We must mandate that all of them feel valued, welcomed and appreciated, and I still feel we have some more work to do in that regard.

You’ve labeled this as a “final destination” job for you. What does that mean?

 I have some plans for  retirement, and I think this opportunity will serve as a great springboard into those plans, but I’m at a point in my career where I’m ready to retire from the fire service. “Final destination” means this will be my final career working in the fire service.

I can assure residents that I’ll be here for the next few years, and what I’m looking to do is to establish a very solid foundation and create a framework for whoever later inherits this office. I want to bring some added value to the Fire Department so that when I leave, there’s a sense of structure in place regardless of the face behind the wheel. That’s very important to me.

Describe your leadership style.

My leadership style is very participatory, very open, very transparent and very candid.

Philosophically, I’m a firm believer that the end-user should have a platform to have a voice and be at the table to discuss the future direction — and for me, our end-users are our firefighters.

For example, it's been a number of years since I've actually ridden on a fire truck. Why should I make all the decisions on what type of rigs or other equipment we might need? I need to listen to our members and their perspectives, because they’re the ones out on the ground every day.

The position, however, does come with responsibilities. As participatory as I am with making these decisions, the buck stops at my office. I’m willing to make decisions, but always with input. Every person here will always have that opportunity to offer feedback and recommendations.

 Several current and former Black firefighters have filed a lawsuit against the city and the Fire Department over an allegedly hostile, racially discriminatory environment. Are you willing to acknowledge that there are issues tied to racial discrimination at the Lansing Fire Department?

 I believe there have been. I'm still collecting data as it relates to whether there are isolated instances or whether it’s more systemic — and that is still being evaluated and analyzed from my perspective. There’s a huge difference between isolated instances that may have happened and a systemic process that’s embedded into the organization. I’m still making determinations.

 Regardless of your determination, there are people working in the Fire Department right now with concerns about racial discrimination. How will foster a more inclusive environment?

I want to work with the city as it relates to the continued process of what it will take to reach a resolution and see how rapidly we can get these issues in the rear-view mirror. I’m focused on today and tomorrow. That’s what I can control. I want there to be better today and tomorrow.

There may have been yesterday, but we can’t do a whole lot about things that may have happened some time in the past. I can’t do a whole lot about that, so I really don’t want to focus a whole lot of attention there outside of being a resource for the city on a resolution. I want to focus on a psychologically and mentally safe organization for our members today and tomorrow.

Some people may view that “rear-view mirror” comment as dismissive of their experiences.

 I don't mean to minimize anything or be dismissive to anyone that may have experienced anything in the past, but I'm also here to provide some productive, positive leadership as we move forward. I have to balance that. It’s not meant to be dismissive. I live in my shoes and my shoes only. I haven’t lived in anyone else’s shoes, and I don’t know how they may have felt, but it’s more my job to bring some perspective as it relates to what the future could hold for us.

 Beyond broadening diversity at the Fire Department, there also seems to be a desire for a culture shift. I keep hearing the phrase “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” where several generations of mostly white men with union ties effectively dictate the direction of the Fire Department. Does the Lansing Fire Department need a culture shift?

 It has to be addressed in a number of areas, because it takes years to develop a culture. It doesn't happen overnight. It will take just as much time and effort to shift the culture. Changing a culture is difficult at best — almost impossible — but the culture can be shifted.

We have to continue to work with each other on ensuring that current leadership, regardless of whether it's the union or the management or the city or the firefighters, understands where we're headed from a futuristic sort of standpoint. Right now in the fire service, we're dealing with a generational issue where we have up to five different generations working in the same area.

We have Baby Boomers and Gen X and Gen Y and Millennials. They don't all learn things or communicate things or process things in the same way, and I'm not convinced that we’ve done enough to make that a priority. We have to meet people where they are. There is no one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach. We have to be very creative and communicative in different ways so that messages can resonate with everyone across the entire organization.

 Firefighter-turned-activist Michael Lynn Jr. is one of the more vocal critics of some of the issues that have plagued the Fire Department. Have you met with him to discuss his concerns?

I spoke with him and I met him, but I have not had a focused conversation where we’ve sat down and talked in detail about anything. I would be interested in talking to him. I do think there probably were some things that were done that we could have done better. We also have to recognize that the Fire Department is not a standalone organization. It’s just one component of this larger municipal complex that is the city of Lansing. People want to point fingers, but this is just one component of a much larger system. I also do think some things could’ve been better — maybe in a more timely manner so that some things don’t drag out and linger indefinitely.

Last July, I reported on allegations from the Fire Department’s first female battalion chief, Shawn Deprez. She said that she was sexually assaulted by top brass and faced unchecked homophobic and sexist harassment, which ultimately pushed her into an early retirement. Do you believe her?

I don't know her personally or professionally and can’t make a statement on whether I believe her. It seems like a bit of a reach to just fabricate a story like that, so I would have to surmise from a reasonableness standpoint that there could be some truth to those claims.

If that’s the case, then it’s a bigger, systemic issue that we’re dealing with here and there are certain things that I personally have zero tolerance for at the Fire Department. I need to make sure I share that information with Human Resources so we’re on the same page. I’ve heard about last-chance agreements, but there are certain behaviors that are so egregious that you shouldn’t get to have a last-chance agreement because then the issue will be festering here.

Are you confident that allegations of sexual abuse would be handled appropriately today?

I'm still figuring that out. It's only been two weeks, so I’m figuring all of that out. There has to be some level of alignment between the city administration, the union and the HR department.

Union leadership has a lot of influence at the Fire Department. How do you plan to navigate those pressures as you make decisions and establish a longer term strategic plan in Lansing?

 I plan on navigating that very positively and productively. I've worked in strong union environments throughout my entire career, so this isn’t something unfamiliar for me. At the end of the day, I’m responsible for the Fire Department as the fire chief. I will be. And as much as I’m going to bend over backwards to work with our bargaining units, the tail doesn’t wag the dog on my watch. We're going to work collaboratively. We're going to coordinate. We're going to communicate. But at the end of the day, it’s my responsibility to run the Fire Department.

I don't anticipate any major problems. I've already met with union representatives, and they’re all great guys. They even gave me a couple of phone calls when I was still over in Battle Creek. 

I also don't anticipate a whole lot of toxicity when it comes to the labor management process because I’m a fair guy. I’m very decisive, but I’m also deliberate in treating everyone fairly — and that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re treating everyone the same because some circumstances are different, and we know that these cookie-cutter approaches don’t work.

Last month, we reported on hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime wages that were paid last year at the Fire Department — making some firefighters among the highest paid staff in the city. Seven employees made more than the mayor. Is this a problem that you plan to solve?

The biggest thing there is that we can't carry funded vacancies indefinitely. If we have a vacancy on our books, we need to get that filled or it’ll inevitably drive up our overtime wages. In Lansing, at least 75% of our call volumes are for EMS and paramedics are at a premium right now because there’s just not a lot of them out there. We’re going to be looking at creative ways to fill these vacancies, which would cut down overtime by bringing in more employees.

It’s also going to be about taking a look at our deployment model and our staffing model to see if we’re providing the most effective service delivery model for this community — including taking a look at some possible imbalances in our mutual aid agreements in neighboring municipalities.

 I think that covers it for now. Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’m just very very excited to be here and I’m looking forward to working with this community working for the community and getting better ingrained within the community. We are here to serve. And it’s a 24/7 operation that never closes, so we take that responsibility very seriously.

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