Racial tension rises after probe of Dallas firefighter's death

Some colleagues say Deputy Chief Bobby Ross, who is black, lied to investigators by denying he gave fateful commands to Wilson and others that day

The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Dallas firefighter Stanley Wilson died battling a blaze more than a year and a half ago. But some of his former colleagues say an internal rift that has formed since his death dates back much further to long-standing departmental politics and a tinge of racial tension within Dallas Fire-Rescue.

Two reports on the May 2013 fire that killed Wilson faulted Deputy Chief Bobby Ross for giving an order that led to Wilson’s death, though the reports showed conflicting accounts on the extent of Ross’ order. Many white firefighters say they are upset now because they believe that Ross, who is black, lied to investigators by denying he gave fateful commands to Wilson and others that day.

But some black firefighters contend Ross, a 30-year veteran of Dallas Fire-Rescue, is under attack because he has long been disliked by white firefighters who thought he was undeservedly promoted by Eddie Burns, the department’s first black chief.

Burns, who resigned under pressure in 2011 after serving five years, was beloved by the Black Fire Fighters Association but despised by other groups.

Retired Lt. James Hunter, a former head of the Dallas Black Fire Fighters Association, said Ross is being made a scapegoat.

“I heard from someone else that if it wouldn’t have been Chief Ross, and would have been another person from a different nationality, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Hunter said. “That shows you right there it’s race-based.”

The Black Fire Fighters Association has come to Ross’ defense and asked for an investigation into the statements of the other firefighters who contradicted Ross. The group’s request preempted that of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association, whose leaders promised one or more of its members would ask for an internal investigation into whether Ross was truthful.

Both requests may go unheeded since officials say the groups missed a 10-day deadline to file them. But D.D. Pierce, a retired white firefighter and former president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association, said he believes the race issue is just a smokescreen. To him, it’s simply a question of right and wrong.

“For the most part, it’s the idea that somebody lied,” Pierce said. “The question is, who lied? And we think Bobby Ross lied.

“I understand the black group is up in arms now,” he said. “Let them be.”

Miscues and chaos
Reports from the state fire marshal’s office and from Dallas Fire-Rescue detail miscommunication, miscues and chaos at the scene of the May 20, 2013, condo fire in northeast Dallas that killed Wilson. Ross was the commander of firefighting operations at the scene.

Section Chief George Tomasovic told investigators that Ross ordered him, Wilson and two other firefighters into the building for a search even though water hoses had been blasting tons of water each minute on the partially collapsed structure.

Within minutes of going inside, the building collapsed, crushing Wilson and temporarily trapping Tomasovic.

Ross told investigators that he told them to search the exterior of the building only. But the two other surviving firefighters backed Tomasovic’s account.

After releasing the reports, Chief Louie Bright said “no one person bears all responsibility” for Wilson’s death and did not discipline anyone.

But a week after the reports went public, Bright moved Ross to a staff position where he works on administrative projects and no longer serves as a commander at fire scenes. The chief has declined or not responded to interview requests.

Ross was not well-liked by some long before Wilson’s death. Through a fire department spokesman, Ross has also declined to comment about the reports.

Pierce said Ross shouldn’t have been promoted to deputy chief by Burns, whom Pierce openly disliked, because he didn’t believe Ross was qualified for the job. Other firefighters also point to allegations made about Ross in a sexual harassment lawsuit against the city. That lawsuit was settled out of court.

Burns said that he promoted Ross after he did well in a lengthy promotional process and based on input from his command staff. He said he didn’t start hearing negative comments until after he announced Ross’ promotion when critics “came out of the woodwork.”

Burns said he found nothing in Ross’ personnel file to back up the complaints, however, and he said he never had any problems with him once he was promoted.

“Whatever the allegations were, they were unfounded,” Burns said Friday. “There was nothing there for me to reverse my decision to promote him.”

Hunter, who was once Ross’ driver, describes him as a good man and a good chief. And he said Ross would not intentionally put another firefighter in harm’s way.

“Nobody goes to work and says, ‘I need to get someone killed or hurt today,’” Hunter said.

Many firefighters — black, white and Hispanic — have said that they don’t believe Ross should be punished for his split-second decisions that day. The issue, many say, is how he responded to investigators afterward.

Even Pierce acknowledged that mistakes can happen at a big fire.

“But somebody has to lead it, and somebody has to own up to making the wrong choice,” he said.

Hunter maintains that Ross is qualified and competent and said much of the animosity toward him is rooted in pettiness. For example, he said Ross was not well liked by some white firefighters for something as simple as asking them to address him as “Chief Ross” instead of “Bobby.”

Nature of the beast
Racial strife is not new to Dallas Fire-Rescue. A 2007 city-commissioned study of the department by Berkshire Advisors Inc., revealed an “undercurrent” of racism and sexism. The report stated that “individuals in all racial groups feel aggrieved and resentful” to differing degrees.

“Hell, yeah, there have always been racial tensions,” Pierce said. “That’s the nature of the beast.”

Records show the department is about 60 percent white, 19 percent black and 16 percent Hispanic.

But Hunter said the fight over Wilson’s death seems to be more about politics and power within the department.

“There ain’t no brotherhood,” Hunter said. “That’s false.”

But Hunter and Pierce agree that Bright, who is black, has done well at navigating association politics and bringing the groups together.

Lt. Joel Lavender, a fire department spokesman, repeatedly stressed in an interview Friday that “the fire department is a family” and that they are all devastated by Wilson’s death. He said there has been no in-fighting in the department to his knowledge.

He said the associations have been in constant communication with each other about fixing trouble spots in operations that emerged during the fateful blaze.

But when asked about firefighters’ reactions to the reports about Wilson’s death, City Manager A.C. Gonzalez recently told the editorial board of The Dallas Morning News that any family has squabbles and might say hurtful things to each other. He didn’t elaborate further.

Gonzalez added that there have been internal dynamics at play after the incident.

“There are other internal issues that go beyond or aside from the incident itself that he is having to deal with,” Gonzalez said of the chief. “My sense is that he’s dealing with them.”

Copyright 2014 The Dallas Morning News
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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