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Fire chief embraces diversity, paves way for transgender fire captain

"The perspective we have now is: everything we do is focused on enhancing people's lives and earning their trust," Chief Brian Schaeffer said


By Whitney Ward
KREM.com

SPOKANE, Wash. — When Brian Schaeffer was chosen to be the new Spokane Fire Chief, he set out to diversify the department in a way that extends beyond numbers. 

Schaeffer's role follows a family tradition. He joined the Spokane Fire Department 12 years ago and his dad worked as a firefighter in Illinois. He is now three months in as the new Spokane Fire Chief and is leading his department into brand new territory.

Chief Brian Schaeffer was heavily criticized for posting a sign stating “All are welcome here” on the front door of every fire station in the city. (Photo/KREM)
Chief Brian Schaeffer was heavily criticized for posting a sign stating “All are welcome here” on the front door of every fire station in the city. (Photo/KREM)

“Our role has significantly changed, more toward enhancing people's lives, preventing harm, and then responding to those emergency incidents,” Schaeffer said. “The perspective we have now is: Everything we do is focused on enhancing people's lives and earning their trust.”

Back in May, Schaeffer was heavily criticized for posting a controversial sign stating “All are welcome here” on the front door of every fire station in the city.

“We’re open to everyone, and I firmly believe that,” Schaeffer said.

But not everyone liked the signs.

“My wife actually hit the send button,” Maeve said. “And you could almost see the mushroom clouds popping up over each station.”

Any feelings of fear were quickly diminished when the same fellow firefighters received a second email straight from the Chief.

“You know, he could have just talked about what the letter of the law was, but he also talked about it from a welcoming viewpoint. And, you know, I'm still the same person,” Griffith said.

In her original letter, Maeve said she was easygoing. She told her fellow firefighters they could use whatever pronouns they wanted to when referring to her and they could call her whatever they want. But her support system said she needed to be more demanding.

“They said, you know, you're actually setting a precedent for people who are coming after you,” Griffith said.

Since she sent her letter, Maeve began to pave the way for others who resonated with her feelings.

“I didn't see the effect that there are people who are gay on our job now, who have contacted me and said that it's really helped them be who they are,” Griffith said. “And I didn't see that coming.”

Now, Griffith hopes to keep on paving the way for others as the newest captain of Spokane Station 3. She is a direct reflection of the diverse community Schaeffer is trying to incorporate in to the department.

“Part of coming out, too, is that we're a diverse community. And we should, the fire department, should be reflective of that community,” Griffith said. “And really, right now, it's not. But it's moving that way.

For Schaeffer, this is part of a much larger goal to not just include the transgender community, but to include everyone.

“The best thing we can do for our organization, instead of surrounding ourselves with like likeness, is to embrace diversity and purposefully recruit and bring people in that have different perspectives,” Schaeffer said. “And I've made the statement many times, we won't accept any intolerance, at all.”

For Maeve, it is exactly the kind of direction she aspired to.

“I think he is willing to change a culture that really is on the cusp of change anyways,” Griffith said.

Now, both Schaeffer and Griffith work for a fire department that is actively seeking change and promoting an environment that is accepting of people from all walks of life.

This article is republished with permission from KREM.

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