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Firefighters: Report confirms racism in the Winston-Salem Fire Department
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Firefighters: Report confirms racism in the Winston-Salem Fire Department

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Omnibus black firefighter press conference

Winston-Salem Firefighter Thomas Penn speaks at the Omnibus firefighter press conference on Sept. 21.

A leader of the Omnibus firefighters' group said Tuesday that a consultant's report on the racial climate in the Winston-Salem Fire Department confirms the group's claim that racism and discrimination are happening in the department.

The report, delivered to the city's Public Safety Committee on Monday, said that the fire department as an organization is not racist. One of the study's authors said the Winston-Salem Fire Department was a progressive leader on race.

But the consultants also said the allegations of individual acts of racism were serious enough to warrant diversity training for fire employees.

"It actually substantiates the things we have been saying for the last seven months," said Thomas Penn, the lead spokesman for the Omnibus group, which formed last summer to protest what the group of current and former firefighters called ongoing racism in the department. "These acts have occurred, there are racists in the department, and it creates a hostile work environment."

Omnibus is asking the city to fire Chief William "Trey" Mayo and other fire department employees they say have either engaged in racist acts or, in Mayo's case, allegedly failed to discipline offending employees.

The report, a "Climate Assessment" of the fire department, was carried out by WPR Consulting LLC., and came about after Omnibus launched its accusations of racism.

The Black firefighters told of incidents ranging from hazing that included spitting in the shoes of a Black firefighter to comments that a fire captain is alleged to have made about running over Black Lives Matters protesters.

The Black firefighters also complained about social media posts made by white fire employees that the Omnibus group labeled "racist and threatening," in a grievance the group has filed with the city.

The WPR consultants didn't try to determine whether any of the alleged racial incidents actually occurred, since that was not why they were hired.

But the consultants did say that what they found when they looked at the Winston-Salem Fire Department was a lot different from what they heard about the department going into the study.

"We heard that the Winston-Salem Fire Department was racist and that the chief was racist," Willie Ratchford, the president of WPR, told members of the city's Public Safety Committee on Monday while presenting the report. "We found the fire department to be a very progressive organization that has been a leader in the country when it comes to race and integration."

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Among historical achievements, Ratchford cited the local fire department forming the state's first integrated fire company, hiring the first paid female firefighter in the state and possibly the country, and becoming fully integrated in 1967.

Since Mayo came on board, the consultants said, the fire department has continued to rack up a good record with minority promotion: The department got its first Black female battalion and division chiefs, its first Black male division chief and other marks of achievement.

Mayo declined comment on the study on Tuesday, saying he was referring media to Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne.

Dequenne said that the purpose of the assessment was not to refute or back the Omnibus assertions, but to get an honest read on the department. In that the consultants succeeded, Dequenne said.

"We are pleased with the results and anxious to get started on the recommendations," he said. "I would say that the input received from the participants indicate that the leadership of our fire department has continued this long tradition of being progressive and proactive with diversity in the workplace."

The report did document comments from both white and Black firefighters that there was racism and racists in the fire department. The assessment also described a culture clash between Black and Hispanic firefighters recruited from urban settings, and white firefighters with a more rural background.

The city's next step, Dequenne said, is to start moving forward on putting into place diversity training for firefighters, along with some of the other recommendations in the assessment.

The training would be provided to new hires and current employees, and eventually, to all city employees, Dequenne said.

Dequenne, in presenting the assessment to council members, wrote that "this assessment was not an investigation into specific claims," and that those claims "have been and are under investigation by the city attorney's office and your human resources department."

Penn said he sees that the firefighters who said offensive things are still on the job.

"Our concern is that the investigation has not even begun," Penn said.

Meanwhile, city officials say that the city's legal team and human resources officials are finishing the process of conducting interviews relating to the grievance filing that the Black firefighters made in October.

The interviews would be followed by hearings on the complaints, but those are not open to the public because they involve personnel decisions.  

The grievance makes the same complaints against Mayo and other white fire employees that the Omnibus group made in its more informal public announcements last summer.

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@wyoungWSJ

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