Burned Bridges, Careers

Bias charges raise alarms in the halls of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue academy

In the past few years the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department has been battered by charges of discrimination and harassment -- an embarrassment for a county system that prides itself on striving for diversity.

Now three black men claim that racism kept them from making it through the department's training academy and onto an actual rescue squad. Shawn Brown, Emmanuel Hill, and Marc Michel further allege that they were denied second chances as cadets -- opportunities they say were afforded to other recruits -- possibly in retaliation for objecting to abuse within the department. Though the three men, whose accounts are partially supported by memos from fire officers, say all they want is another go as cadets, they have had little success convincing Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's top brass to allow them to rejoin training.

The predicament is no surprise to at least one outspoken county firefighter who is also a frequent critic of the department. "When you're white and speak up for yourself, you're considered gung-ho and worthy of working for Miami-Dade Fire Rescue," observes Faye Davis, a fire captain. "But when you're black and speak up for yourself, you have an attitude problem." Davis, who is black, is acting as an advocate for the three former cadets, who did not know one another until Davis introduced them in October. (Brown, Hill, and Michel began their training at separate times over the past eighteen months.)

From day one, racism was part of their training environment, the three recruits allege. They say the department's predominantly Hispanic fire instructors would discipline them while allowing white and Hispanic recruits to slide for the same transgressions. For example, Hill asserts that he was disciplined for using profanity in the classroom. "Yet, William Warren, an Anglo recruit, routinely used foul language in front of instructors and he was never [punished for it]," Hill says. Brown claims that instructors showed favoritism toward white and Hispanic recruits over black cadets. "I got demerits for every mistake I can think of," Brown says. "But our class leader, a Hispanic, cussed all the time and he never got a demerit." Michel adds that the department has allowed more white and Hispanic recruits to re-enter the academy than blacks. "They let all the whites and Hispanics who failed come back," Michel asserts. "Yet they only allowed three of the six blacks who failed to return. So, yeah, I believe race has something to do with it."

Davis, along with representatives from the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters and the Progressive Firefighters Association, two local organizations that assist blacks in becoming firefighters, met on December 4 with Miami-Dade Fire Chief Antonio Bared to insist that the three men be readmitted to the fire academy. Their hopeful effort was inspired by the department's recent track record of rehiring recruits who failed practical or written exams or who missed training hours because of injury. Instead Bared, who was on vacation and unavailable for comment, convened a committee to review the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of not only the three black trainees, but all 22 recruits who were fired by the department since 2002. "Each one will be re-evaluated on a case-by-case basis," says department spokesman Lt. Eugene Germain, Jr. "The committee will make recommendations to the chief on whether to allow or deny reinstatement." Germain says he does not know when the committee will complete its review.

The ethnic makeup of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue has long been a sensitive subject. While Bared claims the department has made significant strides in hiring minorities, particularly African Americans, firefighters such as Davis complain that racial barriers persist. Of the county's 1596 firefighters, 765 are white, 551 are Hispanic, 250 are black, 18 Asian, and 12 Native American. Brown, Hill, and Michel were among 56 blacks who were chosen from thousands for the academy's last recruiting list. (The list is divided into separate classes.) The remainder of the class consisted of 125 whites, 179 Latinos, and 17 individuals classified in other ethnic categories. According to department records, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue has allowed fourteen people who flunked out of the last recruiting class to join the current trainees. Those cadets, despite being dismissed for some of the same reasons that Brown, Hill, and Michel were, were allowed to return. "I haven't gotten back in because I defended myself during my exit interview," Hill says. "I let [the instructors] know that they should not have terminated me."

Davis says racism is the underlying problem and complains that the chief is trying to "skirt around the issue." She asserts that Bared promised to include her and representatives from the black firefighter activist groups on the committee. (Germain says the committee's members are department personnel only.) "I don't have a problem with looking at everyone who was put out," Davis adds. "But it is pretty clear that the department discriminated against these three gentlemen." Davis points as evidence to interoffice department memos written by instructors upset with the way some colleagues have treated cadets.

Meanwhile two of the former cadets are without jobs as they hold out hope that they will be allowed to rejoin the academy. When they started at the academy in early 2003, Brown quit his job as a private security guard at the Krome Detention Center in southwest Miami-Dade County, while Michel gave up a customer service position with Precision Response Corporation in North Miami Beach. Hill, who began training in 2002, still has his job as a Miami-Dade County corrections officer, but he claims he missed out on a promotion in order to dedicate his full attention to fire training. According to his personnel records, Hill took sick and leave time to participate in cadet classes. The three men, during separate phone interviews, insist they want to avoid filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to resolve their situation. "I just want to help put out fires, not start them," Michel says. "But the problem is I was treated differently from other recruits who have been allowed to return."

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