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.

When Hurricane Andrew roared through South Florida, it forever changed the way we think about natural disasters and how we expect officials to deal with them. More than six weeks after the storm, those winds of change are threatening to tear apart the Metro-Dade Fire and Rescue department with allegations of racial discrimination.

Three high-ranking members of department director David Paulison's staff have been demoted after they failed to report to work following the storm. All three officials were division chiefs, part of Paulison's nineteen-member command staff. Two of them, David James and Edward Laden, are black, and claim Paulison used the storm to purge his inner circle of unwelcome minorities. (The third demoted division chief was white.) In response James and Laden have begun a vocal protest campaign and have already enlisted the help of some of Miami's most influential black leaders.

"I'm very disappointed this had to happen," Paulison says in defending his actions and denying racial bias. "But these individuals were not available during one of the most significant events in Dade County history. Their failure to respond has let down not only this fire department but this entire community. Over 50 percent of my staff, over 200 firefighters, lost their homes, but they were here working. How in the world can I look all of these people in the eye and not deal with the members of my own staff who did not come in to work?"

Each of the men offered an explanation. Richard Carty, the third division chief involved, says he had just begun a two-week vacation in Tennessee when the storm hit, and he didn't adequately gauge its severity. A division chief responsible for sixteen station houses from Liberty City to Key Biscayne, Carty has admitted he made a mistake and has not fought Paulison's decision to demote him.

Laden and James, however, say their treatment was unjust. Laden, who was the division chief in charge of communications and the county's 911 emergency telephone system, was in Milwaukee at a convention of black firefighters, along with eight others from the department. He says he attempted to contact Paulison by phone at 7:00 a.m. the morning of the hurricane, but was unable to get through. And he couldn't fly back to Miami because the airport was closed. When he finally reached Paulison four days later, Laden says his boss told him: "Eddie, nine guys wouldn't have made any difference."

Laden told Paulison he was scheduled to return Sunday night, and Paulison advised him not to change his plans. Today Paulison says that by then it was too late; Laden should have already returned, even if he had to fly into another city, rent a car, and drive back. "That," he says, "is what I expect from my division chiefs."

James, who was head of community services, was on vacation at his Broward home, but says he was too ill with the flu to work. Beginning the day of the storm and for several days afterward, he tried to reach Paulison but the phones were erratic. "Nobody has control over illness," he says.

"Short of being in the hospital," Paulison counters, "telling me you don't feel good and don't want to work just isn't good enough. Even if he was sick, he should have been here working.... We do all sorts of preparations for hurricanes and natural disasters, and they know to be here." Their inability to recognize that, Paulison says, is part of the reason he lost faith in them.

Before determining what disciplinary action he should take, Paulison met individually with the three men to hear their explanations. Once he decided to demote them, he contacted County Manager Joaquin Avino, who supported the move. On the afternoon of September 18, Paulison called Laden, James, and Carty into his office and notified them he no longer wanted them to serve as division chiefs. Carty voluntarily resigned. Laden and James argued against the demotions. "All of a sudden," says James, "twenty years of an unblemished record was thrown aside. It was obvious I had been tried, convicted, and sentenced before I was even spoken to."

Carty and Laden, who were both earning about $80,000 per year, reverted to battalion chiefs, their prior ranks. Laden, who was making about $60,000 annually, dropped back to lieutenant. All three men will suffer substantial pay cuts.

For Laden and James there is no appeal process. The thirteen division chiefs, as well as the five assistant chiefs and one deputy chief, serve in those posts at the pleasure of the department director. Neither Laden nor James, however, is willing to let the matter rest. "I have never been the type of individual who has seen an injustice and simply let it go," says James, who was a founder of the Progressive Firefighters Association of Dade County. Adds Laden: "I'm fighting this to the finish."

Though the county commission is prohibited by charter from interfering with the personnel decisions of department heads, Laden and James wanted to make the matter public and force commissioners to deal with the allegations of racism. So they arranged to appear before the county commission's Public Safety Committee, which oversees the fire department as well as the police and corrections departments.

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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