Representatives of a group of Black firefighters who are raising concerns about racism at the Winston-Salem Fire Department say they’re not satisfied with the city’s efforts to look into their claims and improve the department’s organizational culture through an outside consulting group.

Three representatives of Omnibus, the Black firefighters group, met with City Manager Lee Garrity and Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne a couple weeks ago. The firefighters — two retired and one active — spoke to TCB on condition their names be withheld.

“We expressed to [Garrity] the high level of concern for men and women of color in the fire department, and the level of racism and what these men and women have to endure on their shift,” one of the retired firefighters said. “You’re asking them to work with people who have treated them with utmost disrespect. You’re asking them to work with individuals who didn’t want them there, and when an alarm goes off, you’re sending them to a call with these individuals who have displayed racism.”

Since Omnibus went public in July, the Black firefighters have released a photo of a gorilla mask at a Black firefighters’ desk, described white counterparts tying nooses during trainings, pointed to derogatory social media posts, and accused a training captain of saying he would run over protesters.

“We want an investigation,” the retired Black firefighter told TCB on Sept. 18. “We’re asking for an outside entity to come in. They’re refusing to do that. We can’t understand why.” The firefighters said they specifically want an outside group to investigate grievances against white counterparts for racist incidents that, if sustained, could lead to time off, demotion or termination, in contrast to the social climate study that the city has commissioned through two consultants, Willie Ratchford and Anthony Wade.

Garrity acknowledged in an email to TCB that the three Omnibus representatives brought additional information about specific complaints to him and Dequenne, and said that staff in the human resources department and city attorney’s office are investigating the complaints.

“As you are well aware,” Garrity said, “state law restricts what we are allowed to say related to personnel investigations.”

The Omnibus representatives said they see it as a conflict of interest for the city to investigate the complaints, with one of the retired firefighters saying, “It seems like these grievances from people of color are falling on deaf ears.”

Beyond the in-house investigation of grievances, Garrity told TCB: “We have kicked off the climate assessment by the outside consultant. Firefighters, retirees and community members will be given opportunities to participate in that review.”

The consultants, hired by the city for $20,000, pledge in their proposal to deliver “a comprehensive diversity and inclusion project that will address systemic racial issues in the city’s fire department and make recommendations to improve the WSFD’s organizational culture, processes and policies to make them more inclusive.”

The scope of the project is wide-ranging, including a pledge to determine “if systemic racial issues are prevalent in the fire department” and “provide effective recommendations to improve the fire department’s organizational culture, processes and policies,” but also to “determine if the concerns raised by the fire department’s employees have merit.”

To that end, the consultants requested “copies of print materials and/or social media posts obtained by the city to ascertain resident and community perceptions and concerns” and said they “will need to know the full story on social media concerns.”

But Garrity insisted in an email to TCB on Sept. 18: “The consultants are not doing a personnel investigation. We are doing those based on any documentation brought to us by Omnibus.”

Omnibus is holding a press conference on Monday at 6 p.m. at 651 N. Marshall St. A press release for the event said members will review the city’s responses to their demands and answer questions.

In their comments to TCB, the representatives of Omnibus also raised concerns about lack of diversity in the fire department and a recruitment pipeline they said puts Black candidates at a disadvantage.

Among nine battalion chiefs, only one is a person of color and none are women, according to both the city and Omnibus. One of the retired firefighters with Omnibus told TCB that among the 73 captains, only five are people of color and none are female, he said. But the city provided data with slightly different numbers to TCB on Monday afternoon indicating that out of a total of 78 captains, 17 are minorities, including 15 Black males, one Latinx male and one white female.

“We’d like to see those numbers more closely represent the demographics of the community,” the retired firefighter said. He also said Blacks are underrepresented in rookie school, and the numbers are getting worse. According to numbers provided by the city, 62 percent of the current rookie class are white males, and it includes six Blacks, one Latinx person and one woman.

In response to an inquiry from TCB about the demographics of the fire department, Garrity provided a study prepared by the city of Fayetteville that compares fire services across the state.

The Fayetteville study indicates that white firefighters make up 73.8 percent of the Winston-Salem Fire Department, compared to only 56.3 percent of the city’s population, while Blacks hold only 21.3 percent of positions in the fire department, compared to 34.8 percent of the population. Latinx firefighters are even more underrepresented, making up 2.6 percent of the fire department compared to 14.0 percent of the city’s population.

Fire departments in the other four largest cities across the state come off even worse than Winston-Salem in virtually every diversity metric except Latinx representation. In Charlotte, whites make up 85.0 percent of the fire service, compared to 49.5 percent of the city’s population — a 39.5-point disparity. In Greensboro, Black people are 41.6 percent of the city’s population, but only 15.5 percent of the fire service — a 26.1-point disparity.

In Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Durham, the share of Black firefighters has declined since 2016, while the percentage of white firefighters has gone up. (The Fayetteville study only included data from 2016 for Raleigh and Charlotte, precluding the opportunity to chart year-to-year change.)

The consultants will also look at the Winston-Salem Fire Department’s diversity and recruitment efforts.

The project proposal includes a pledge to help the department “address recruitment challenges regarding diversity and inclusion.”

“What we’ve seen as a trend is the city of Winston-Salem is actively recruiting people from surrounding communities in the county, places like Clemmons,” the other retired Black firefighter said.

“A lot of those people don’t see men and women of color as firefighters,” he continued. “They don’t think you deserve to be there. They don’t want you there. You’re asking people of color to work with that mentality for 24 hours…. When the alarm goes off, they say, ‘Go ahead and do your job.’”

Recruitment is skewed towards white applicants because of the talent pipeline created by volunteer fire departments in rural areas that are predominantly white, the Omnibus representatives said.

“A lot of times these people in the county are exposed to firefighting at an early age because of volunteer fire departments and the opportunity for training,” he said. “In urban areas, they don’t have access to that training.”

This story was updated on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020 at 6:47 p.m. to incorporate information provided by the city of Winston-Salem about the demographics of the fire department.

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