Burned Bridges, Careers
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."
According to personnel records, Hill was dismissed from the academy on August 2, 2002. The 25-year-old failed a make-up exam testing his ability to quickly and correctly tie various firefighter tools onto a rope. Hill, who had the second-highest academic grade point average in his class, scored 75.17 on the tool-tying test, about five points below the minimum score allowed by the department. Eleven recruits failed the test, but all of them, with the exception of Hill, Brown, and a white female recruit, were allowed to return. Of those eight reinstated cadets, one was black, two were white, and five were Hispanic.
Hill contends he has not been allowed back into the academy because he irritated instructors, and because he would not tolerate personal attacks. According to the three recruits and other academy trainees who spoke on the condition of anonymity, instructors verbally abused and belittled cadets on a daily basis. Hill drew the wrath of Lt. Maria Chin and Capt. William Herrera, the two lead instructors he says conspired to have him kicked out. "One time Herrera called me a smart-ass and asked me if I was insubordinate in corrections," Hill remembers.
Hill called Herrera's truthfulness into question during his final meeting with the instructors. He insists that Herrera was not present while the recruit was taking his make-up exam on July 23, 2002. Under department rules, Chin was supposed to grade Hill in the presence of another certified instructor. Hill claims Herrera was teaching a class and had a noncertified instructor monitor Chin. Herrera then signed Hill's grade report attesting he had witnessed Chin conduct the exam. Herrera denied Hill's account of events during the meeting, according to department memos, and Hill stormed out of the room. On August 12, 2002, Hill appealed to then-Fire Chief Charles Phillips, via a letter. "He just took the captain's side and didn't investigate anything," Hill says dejectedly. Herrera could not be reached for comment; department spokesman Germain declined comment.
Brown, a 32-year-old former Navy serviceman, says instructors favored abusing cadets over teaching them. He recalls instructors forcing students to do strenuous exercises as punishment for making mistakes. "It was not a real positive learning environment," Brown says. "One instructor once told me that if I kept on ovulating he would have to send me to the maternity ward." Upon his dismissal from the academy on July 25, 2003, for the same reason as Hill, Brown appealed to county manager George Burgess, asking for a second opportunity in light of the instructors' behavior. "I was placed in a helpless position where threats were often and termination was prevalent," Brown wrote.
According to department records, recruits are not the only ones to question Herrera's behavior. In a February 7, 2002 interoffice memo, Lt. Michael Valdes accuses Herrera of making derogatory and offensive comments toward recruits, such as calling one a "worthless piece of shit." Valdes alleged that the captain would force recruits to wear their helmets and their heavy coats at all times, even when they were not participating in live drills. "I found myself defending the right of every individual to be out there not only to the captain, but other instructors who shared in his sentiments," the lieutenant wrote. Herrera denied Valdes's accusations in a subsequent memo.
The third recruit, Michel, didn't fail any of his exams, but was dismissed from the department on August 7, 2003, after he missed several days of training. According to Michel and department records, instructors determined he had to obtain medical clearance to continue with his lessons after the recruit complained of fatigue and minor chest pains during a workout the last week of July. As a result, Michel missed about four days of class until he was able to provide a clean bill of health. His instructors let him take his exams and he passed. "Next thing I know I'm being terminated and they're telling me their hands are tied," Michel says.
Another recruit, Tonya Rozier, also missed time because of health concerns, but was allowed back into the academy. Yet Bared informed Michel, via an August 15 letter, that the fire department did not have the resources to allow Michel to make up his training hours in order to be reinstated. Michel's situation caused one instructor, Capt. Jerome Byrd, Sr., to break ranks and write an August 11 memo to Bared condemning the department's action. "It saddens me and many other's [sic] on this department to see the career of this young man thrown away," Byrd wrote. "It appears that the training staff is not concerned with training, but with terminating."
In August Bared reassigned all of the instructors, including Byrd, Chin, and Herrera, following the death of fire cadet Wayne Mitchell during a drill at Port Everglades. The department, the Broward County Sheriff's Office, the state Fire Marshall, and federal safety officials are conducting separate investigations into the incident. Mitchell's death is an unfortunate example of the instructors' disregard for trainees, says Michel. "Herrera would always say his goal was to get the temperature up to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit and see if you could handle it," Michel says. "Instead of helping you, they wanted to test the limits of your mind and body."
Ethnic and gender breakdown of Miami-Dade County's 1596 firefighters:
White males: 646
White females: 119
Black males: 201
Black females: 49
Hispanic males: 504
Hispanic females: 47
Asian-American males: 18
Asian-American females: 0
Native-American males: 10
Native-American females: 2
Ethnic and gender breakdown of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's 2002 recruiting class of 377:
White males: 86
White females: 39
Black males: 43
Black females: 13
Hispanic males: 161
Hispanic females: 18
Asian-American males: 8
Asian-American females: 1
Native-American males: 0
Native-American females: 1
Unidentified males: 6
Unidentified females: 1
SOURCE: MIAMI-DADE FIRE RESCUE
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.