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