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Our view: Fire department begins a conversation
Our view

Our view: Fire department begins a conversation

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Winston-Salem Fire Chief TWilliam “Trey” Mayo and Batallion Chief Shirese Moore listen during an Omnibus Black firefighter press conference on Sept. 21, 2020. 

A highly anticipated assessment produced by a consulting firm hired by the city to look into allegations of racism in the Winston-Salem Fire Department was released last week.

Good. Now the conversation can begin.

No one thought this would be the end of it, did they?

A group of 14 active and retired Black city firefighters calling themselves Omnibus announced in a news conference last July that racism and discrimination permeated the Winston-Salem Fire Department. They recounted harrowing incidents of hazing — including spitting tobacco juice into boots and the placement of a gorilla-head costume on a desk — and said they’d been subjected to racial slurs, including the “N-word,” and watched white firefighters making nooses.

The city responded by hiring a firm whose consultants, between Oct. 12 and Dec. 15, interviewed more than 100 members of the fire department, including 60 firefighters, 20 captains and the fire chief, William “Trey” Mayo. Consultants also met with Omnibus and other concerned groups, including Hate Out of Winston, the Urban League and the NAACP.

The report substantiated the incidents of racism and discrimination, witnessed by both Black and white members of the fire department.

But the report also said that the incidents were isolated rather than the result of the department itself being racist. One of the study's authors said the fire department was a progressive leader on race.

The report said that one reason racial and cultural tensions exist in the fire department is because of the different backgrounds of white and minority employees. Black and Hispanic employees tended to come from urban areas, while white employees often came from rural areas or small towns.

Putting them together sometimes results in a culture clash, the consultants found.

The report also said that while some community groups expressed the belief that Fire Chief Mayo is racist, none of the members of the fire department who were interviewed shared that view.

And it was noted that Mayo has promoted Black employees to positions of responsibility in the department, including assigning the first Black captain to Rescue 1, a company with higher-level training, and promoting the first Black female battalion and division chiefs and the first Black female deputy fire marshal.

That’s important. The members of the fire department have to know that Mayo respects them and that they can trust him.

The report said that social media posts have caused racial tension — no surprise there — and recommended that the city revisit and strengthen its policy on what firefighters can post on social media. It also suggested that supervisors need to do more to hold employees accountable when they say or do something inappropriate.

The consultants also said that the city should do more to encourage diversity in hiring; while about 34% of the city’s population is Black, African-Americans constitute only 21% of the fire department’s staff — and only 13% of fire captains are Black.

The report made other suggestions, such as requiring diversity training for fire department employees and establishing a firm anti-hazing policy.

Omnibus had expressed reservations about the report before the consultants were hired. We hope they’ll see this as affirmation of their concerns and a starting point for further conversation.

The city should certainly take the recommendations seriously and implement some changes, especially instituting thorough diversity training.

We count on our fire department, first of all, to be responsive when needed. And firefighters will respond to life-threatening circumstances with better efficiency and expertise if they work together smoothly.

That can’t be done adequately unless they trust and respect each other.

In July when the allegations were first coming to light, Thomas Penn, a 27-year veteran of the fire department, said, “Silence doesn’t heal the wounds inflicted by injustice.” He’s right.

The nation is now involved in an unprecedented conversation about racism and discrimination that is, at times, difficult and painful — but completely necessary if we’re to move forward together. The city and the fire department have an opportunity to set an example for other agencies and other cities. We hope they’ll take it.

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