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Veteran minority firefighters assess fire service diversity

Firefighter: About one third of the department didn’t want him there and wouldn’t sleep in the bed he’d slept in

By Irma Widjojo
The Vallejo Times Herald

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series on fire department diversity.

VALLEJO, Calif. — Diversity in fire service has improved over recent decades, but it has not always been easy for the first few minorities who joined local firefighting forces.

Those who started their career decades ago said ignorance and lack of tolerance led to difficulties for these first trail blazers.

A current Vallejo black firefighter said, however, that much progress has been made in recent decades. Today, racial diversity, particularly in Vallejo’s Fire Department, is common and minority firefighters are not experiencing the types of discrimination they once did, he said.

It wasn’t always so.

Russell Hayden was born and raised in Vallejo before moving away as a teenager.

Hayden, who was in the fire service for 34 years, called the diversity in the U.S. fire departments “dismal.”

“Fire services are very segregated for both people of color and from a gender standpoint,” he said.

In 1969, Hayden became the Los Altos Fire Department’s first black firefighter, and the only one for five years.

“It was very challenging,” Hayden said of his Los Altos experience. “A third of the people didn’t want me to be there. Didn’t want to sleep in the bed I had slept in, things like that.”

However, he said another third of the department took him under its wings and guided him.

Hayden and 12 other black firefighters formed the Santa Clara County Black Firefighters Association in 1973. He served as its president the first three years.

He said there was name calling, but nothing more serious than that. However, Hayden said that there were times he would be excluded from activities outside and inside the fire station.

When asked how he dealt with the situation, Hayden said, “My goal was to do the best job I could do. ... I believe it would overcome everything else,” Hayden said.

After five years, Hayden transferred to the San Jose Fire Department, where he became one of four black firefighters out of more than 500 firefighters at the time. He said he faced the same challenges, but stayed for 29 years and retired as an inspector.

He is now the CEO of Firefighter’s ABC’s, company that partners with 126 fire departments across the country to form the Firefighter Diversity Recruitment Council. Vallejo Fire Department recently joined the council.

Firefighter’s ABC’s provides these fire departments with resources to increase and maintain diversity.

Another council member is the Fairfield Fire Department, whose chief since 2008 is also African American.

Although not Fairfield’s first black chief, Vince Webster was the first and only black firefighter in Sausalito’s fire department, where he started his career 29 years ago.

Webster said he never experienced any serious discrimination or harassment, but said he felt like he had to prove himself.

“I didn’t want anyone to feel like I didn’t earn the job,” he said in a recent interview. “I felt like I had to earn my keep. I didn’t want people to lower their standards or anything like that.”

However, he said that ignorance was an issue when he first began his career.

“People would discriminate, but didn’t know that they were discriminating,” Webster said. “They would do it either out of ignorance, or it’s just a way of life.”

Webster said among other things, various federal lawsuits over hiring practices and discrimination in the workplace helped fire departments be more cognizant about culture and gender diversity, especially through the mandatory harassment training.
The higher requirements to become a firefighter have also changed the makeup of the force.

Vallejo engineer firefighter James Brunson was born and raised in Vallejo, and has been with the department for 26 years. He said he has witnessed the progress.

"(Hired firefighters) are more educated and they have a higher educational background,” said Brunson, who is African American. “You just get a different type of people... The requirements attract different people, that’s true today compared to years ago.”

Brunson said he has never experienced any discrimination or harassment in the department, and he attributed it to his personality and college football background.

“In football, you play with a bunch of guys with different races, different backgrounds,” he said. “That really helped me.”

However, he said he was privy to other minority firefighters who did not have the same positive experience when they started.

“Some of it might be race related,” Brunson said. “But some of it was also caused by their perceived performance and they based it on their race.”

There were six other black firefighters when Brunson was hired in Vallejo. The first non-white, African American Vallejo firefighter was hired in 1964.

Being the union representative for the local chapter for 22 years, Brunson said he’s never had to deal with any discrimination cases. He also said he’s noticed the increasing diversity in the fire service, especially at national conferences.

“In the ‘80s, they were mostly white men,” he said. “But in the ‘90s and 2000s, there were more women, more minorities... I think (the diversity) has come a long ways compared to years ago.”

However, both Webster and Hayden said that even though fire service diversity and workplace environment have significantly progressed since decades ago, there is still much room for improvement.

“Things have gotten better each year I was in the fire service,” Hayden said. “But there’s still a ways to go.”

Copyright 2012 The Times-Herald
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