Or­lando’s new fire chief faces a big job: Chang­ing a cul­ture

Orlando Sentinel - - OPINION -

New Or­lando Fire Chief Ben­jamin Barks­dale Jr. has the ideal back story and re­sume to lead a depart­ment once plagued by sex­ual ha­rass­ment and al­le­ga­tions of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion.

For starters, he isn’t a part of the city’s good old boy net­work. Be­fore com­ing to Or­lando, Barks­dale Jr. was fire chief for Prince Ge­orge’s County in Mary­land, one of the largest com­bi­na­tion mu­nic­i­pal fire and EMS de­part­ments in the United States.

Equally im­por­tant, Barks­dale Jr. comes from a some­what pro­gres­sive state when it comes to the di­ver­sity in lead­er­ship for fire de­part­ments. Since 2018, three women have been ap­pointed as fire chiefs — mak­ing Mary­land an out­lier among the largely male-dom­i­nated de­part­ments. The most re­cent ap­point­ment, Tif­fany Green, filled Barks­dale Jr.’s old job.

Dur­ing his swear­ing-in cer­e­mony in Or­lando this week, Barks­dale Jr. promised to bring a com­mit­ment to di­ver­sity, in­clu­sion and change.

It was a good hire for the city in light of the poor sit­u­a­tion that’s un­folded at the depart­ment over the past cou­ple of years.

Three of the fire depart­ment’s top em­ploy­ees — for­mer Chief Rod­er­ick Wil­liams and Deputy Chiefs Ian Davis and Gary Fus­sell — were named in a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the U.S. Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion dat­ing back to sex­ual ha­rass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion al­le­ga­tions.

The EEOC de­ter­mined ev­i­dence “sup­ported [the woman’s] al­le­ga­tions that she has been sub­jected to dis­crim­i­na­tory ha­rass­ment; con­duct; and dif­fer­en­tial treat­ment by both Deputy Chiefs.” Wil­liams was ac­cused of “con­tin­u­ous re­tal­ia­tory con­duct” and sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

The city hired a Tampa at­tor­ney who con­ducted a sep­a­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tion and ear­lier this year found the al­le­ga­tions were un­sub­stan­ti­ated.

Wil­liams, who de­nied any wrong­do­ing, re­signed. Davis and Fus­sell re­main on staff.

Davis also was the sub­ject of a sep­a­rate in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions by seven cur­rent and for­mer fe­male fire­fight­ers who said they “en­dured dis­crim­i­na­tion, ha­rass­ment, bul­ly­ing, wrong­ful ter­mi­na­tion, re­tal­i­a­tion, [sex­ual] abuse and other de­gen­er­ate acts while on the job.”

The city said it hired an at­tor­ney to in­ves­ti­gate, and those al­le­ga­tions also were found to be un­sub­stan­ti­ated.

The locally con­ducted in­ves­ti­ga­tions may have closed those cases but the sim­ple fact is that eight woman who worked for the depart­ment claimed to be vic­tims of abu­sive or in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­duct by high-rank­ing depart­ment of­fi­cials.

That messy fact means Or­lando’s fire depart­ment still has work to do to en­sure past and cur­rent fire­fight­ers as well as ci­ti­zens that they can trust the depart­ment’s en­tire lead­er­ship.

Even if Barks­dale Jr. turns out to be a great chief, he is still one part of the puz­zle. Shift­ing the cul­ture re­quires all the pieces to fit.

Di­verse fire depart­ment staffs, from the top down, bet­ter re­flect the com­mu­ni­ties they serve — and the staffs them­selves are bet­ter for it.

Fire de­part­ments across the na­tion have done a poor job at­tract­ing and recruiting mi­nori­ties and women. Or­lando’s de­mo­graph­ics are more di­verse (70% white, 86% male) in com­par­i­son to na­tional num­bers (85% white, 95% male). But given the wide dis­crep­ancy, that’s not say­ing much.

Fort Laud­erdale Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr said a di­verse staff im­proves morale and un­der­stand­ing in­side the sta­tion, where fire­fight­ers usu­ally spend hours to­gether build­ing ca­ma­raderie be­fore leap­ing into dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions.

“You have to do very spe­cific tar­geted recruitmen­t,” said Kerr, who is the first fe­male fire chief for Fort Laud­erdale. “Go to HBCUs, ath­letic teams, not every­body is go­ing to go play in the NFL and not ev­ery woman is go­ing to be a pro­fes­sional ath­lete … You can’t wait for it to come to you and say no­body ap­plied. Your poli­cies and pro­ce­dures have to be wel­com­ing.”

Or­lando lead­ers drew out­side the lines in recruiting a Mary­land fire chief to run the city’s depart­ment. They need to keep think­ing cre­atively when it comes to recruiting the rest of the staff.

A spokesper­son for the city said there aren’t many cur­rent va­can­cies but they are ex­pect­ing a large num­ber of re­tire­ments within the next four to six years. A list of rec­om­men­da­tions for pro­grams and meth­ods to build a broader and more di­verse can­di­date pool is ex­pected to be pre­sented to Barks­dale Jr. in 2020.

Chang­ing work­place cul­ture takes time. Most im­por­tant, it will take a long-term com­mit­ment to the ideals Or­lando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Barks­dale Jr. ex­pressed ear­lier this week.

This is an ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­nity for Or­lando to change the cul­ture in its fire depart­ment. We’re hop­ing the city’s lead­ers are ready to de­liver.

RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/OR­LANDO SENTINEL

The Or­lando Fire­fight­ers Honor Guard presents the col­ors dur­ing the cer­e­mony where Ben­jamin Barks­dale Jr. was sworn in as Or­lando’s 20th fire chief at the Dr. Phillips Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter on Mon­day.

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