Senior ranks of fire rescue lack diversity, official says


In this March 13, 2013 file photo, Gainesville Fire Chief Gene Prince walks out of a smoked filled station as Lt. Keith Saunders, center, explains what the search and rescue drill will be like during the Gainesville Fire Rescue second Citizens' Fire Academy.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Su
Published: Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 4:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 4:33 p.m.

As the city seeks to fill the second-highest post at Gainesville Fire Rescue, the Office of Equal Opportunity says there is a lack of diversity in the department's upper ranks.

With the current vacancy at deputy chief, 10 of the 11 senior-level positions at the department are filled and they are held by eight white men, one white woman and one black man.

Over the last seven months, turnover has led to two promotions in the senior ranks. Equal Opportunity Director Cecil Howard gave a formal statement of "non-support" to the most recent of the two, a November promotion to the rank of district chief.

In an early April memo on his concerns, Howard said the personnel move failed to address a lack of diversity in the department's leadership or the stated goal in the city's affirmative action plan of hiring more minorities at mid-management positions throughout city government.

The discussion of the department has reached the level of the City Commission.

At the April 18 meeting, Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls pushed for the city to fund a disparity study looking at the hiring and promotion of minorities and women. She specifically mentioned the fire department.

"There has been no plan put in place for diversity in the fire department and we're about to see a total white upper management," Hinson-Rawls said at that meeting.

Commissioners voted unanimously to have city staff bring forth the study during summer budget meetings as a potential addition for next fiscal year.

Preliminary cost projections bandied about for the study were in the range of $300,000.

In an April 3 memo, Howard detailed some of his concerns about the fire department to Commissioner Todd Chase, who had requested more information.

Howard went back to last September when the 11 senior management positions included two black males. When former Assistant Fire Chief Michael Randolph, an African-American, retired, Fire Chief Gene Prince promoted Jeff Lane, a white male, from the rank of district chief to fill the vacancy.

Prince then promoted Allen Siorek, a white male with some 16 years' experience in the department and a former statewide firefighter/paramedic of the year, to the rank of district chief.

That prompted the statement of non-support and concerns from Howard because there were qualified minority candidates on the department's promotions list.

Howard subsequently had a meeting with City Manager Russ Blackburn, Interim Human Resources Manager Cheryl McBride and Prince to discuss the vacant deputy chief position. It opened up after the department's former second in command, Tim Hayes, departed to become fire chief in Cape Coral.

In his memo to Chase, Howard said his hope after the meeting is that the fire department "will begin to make substantive gains in minority hiring within its leadership, and that its leadership will begin to positively reflect the racial (and gender) makeup of our community."

Prince said the department is committed to diversity and the composition of senior leadership over the last several months is only "a snapshot of our department."

Prince said collective bargaining agreements require that positions through the rank of district chief are filled by promotion through the ranks. Below district chief, candidates are ranked based on a testing process. For district chiefs, testing determines who makes the promotion list from which the chief selects a candidate.

Prince said the department actively seeks minorities for entry-level positions with a recruitment officer who travels Florida and into South Georgia.

Tracey Higdon, the president of the city's firefighter union, said the department recruits a diverse group of applicants for entry-level positions and "through attrition these people will naturally move up" over time.

Higdon said the union believes the most important thing is to "put the best people in the position that we can."

As it stands, Prince and Human Resources staff are using feedback from the Equal Opportunity Office to shape the recruitment of a new deputy chief. The position will be advertised through organizations such as the Florida Fire Chiefs Association, the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, National Association of Hispanic Firefighters and America's Female Firefighters, according to an April 18 email from Human Resources staff to Howard.

An interview panel will include Prince, senior personnel from other city departments and possibly a fire chief from another department.

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