A Big Wind Blows A Hot Fire

Two Metro-Dade fire department officials are demoted after the storm. They say it's because they're black.

This past Thursday the committee held its regularly scheduled bimonthly meeting. Committee members Harvey Ruvin and Larry Hawkins did not attend, leaving only commissioners Art Teele and Mary Collins to witness an impressive show of support for the two fire department officials. More than 50 firefighters, mostly black, filed into the commission chambers, accompanied by Congresswoman-elect Carrie Meek and NAACP president Johnnie McMillian.

Meek introduced Laden and James and said the demotions were an important issue of concern for the black community. McMillian followed later by telling commissioners there is a strong perception among Miami blacks that Afro-Americans "will be shafted" by local government at any opportunity. She labeled the demotions a "grave act," and warned commissioners, "We will be watching this proceeding very closely."

Recognizing the potential volatility of the issue, several other commissoners and Mayor Steve Clark, who are not members of the Public Safety Committee, watched the meeting on closed-circuit television from their offices.

"I take exception, strong exception, to anyone who would question my commitment to this community," Laden told the committee, stressing that he considered Paulison's actions "biased, unjust, and inconsistent," although both he and James refused to be more specific at the meeting. Later, however, Laden explained that a number of police officers and firefighters from both the City of Miami and Metro-Dade failed to report for work after the hurricane because because they were out of the state or were on leave. No other department, he claimed, handled it the way Paulison did.

Committee chairman Teele asked Laden and James to appear before the Dade County Fire Board and present their grievances in more detail. The board will then submit a report to the Public Safety Committee at its October 15 meeting, at which time Laden and James, as well as department director Paulison, are expected to make full presentations.

Whether through naivete or wishful thinking, the day before the committee meeting, Paulison, a veteran of nearly 22 years with the fire department but only three months as director, had said he didn't know if the issue of race would be raised. Afterward he admitted that the support from outside the department for Laden and James surprised him, although it probably shouldn't have, given the department's well-publicized history of racial discontent. Today 63 perecent of the department's employees are white, 22 percent are Hispanic, and about 14 percent are black. Only 13 percent are female.

Paulison has promised to change that. "They have to look and see what I've done," he argues, noting that in his three months as director he has made four promotions to his command staff -- all prior to the most recent demotions. Two have been Hispanics, one was black, and the other white. They replaced four white males. In the most recent training academy class for new recruits, he has hired thirteen Hispanics, eight blacks, and four whites. Eleven of the rookies will be women. "That's what I've done in only three months," he says. "That's what people should look at."

Paulison's most immediate worry, he says, is that the rancor over James and Laden will cause a racial rift in his department as firefighters are forced to take sides. "I'm very concerned about that," he says. "Unfortunately the demotions have caused a lot of political uproar I didn't expect.

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