What Color Is Fire? 

The controversy surrounding a racially insensitive greeting card sent out by Alameda County firefighters has called attention to the lack of diversity among the department's employees.

click to enlarge The greeting card featured coolie hats and other stereotypes.

The greeting card featured coolie hats and other stereotypes.

Last June, a video created for the new recruitment academy of the Alameda County Fire Department featured whooping and hollering, typical of the testosterone-fueled exuberance found at boot camps or college football games. Donning heavy firefighter coats and sturdy oversized helmets, department recruits high-fived each other amid fanning flames and dangerous situations. In a rapid-fire montage, new recruits described the obstacles they overcame during their departmental training. One firefighter said the rigorous training program helped instill "brotherhood" among the new firefighters.

"We were a really tight group," he said. "We went through a lot together. The closest we got just working together, day in and day out. Spending every day together. Eating lunch in the locker room just brought us together and formed that brotherhood that I'm excited to have for the rest of my entire career."

By the end of the 32-minute video, viewers might have noticed something else about the video. Participants appeared to be almost exclusively white men, although assessing the ethnicity of people based solely on their appearance in a video is hardly a science. Not a single Asian-American recruit nor woman was visible — not even in the background playing a bit part.

Fire departments across the country have typically been slow to diversify their ranks. But an incident at the Alameda County Fire Department last May involving the distribution of an offensive Chinese New Year's card that featured three Asian-American firefighters in coolie hats highlighted that department's lack of diversity. Despite Alameda County being one of the most richly diverse areas in the country, its fire department has struggled to keep pace with the region's changing demographics. The department remains overwhelmingly Caucasian and male.

The department serves residents of the unincorporated county and cities that contract with it for fire prevention — including Dublin, Emeryville, Newark, San Leandro, Union City, and the Berkeley and Livermore National Labs. Politicians and other advocates for Asian-Americans and Latinos believe the lack of diversity at the fire department puts minorities in harm's way, especially those with limited English-language proficiency.

"Alameda County is a diverse place," said San Leandro Councilmember Corina Lopez. "In these times we need people serving as firefighters that look like the communities they are serving and speak the same language they speak. It becomes a safety issue for the community."

Demographic data that the department provided its advisory commission shows that the agency still has a long way to go before it comes close to bridging the racial and gender gaps within almost all levels of its ranks.

The problem begins with its pool of job applicants, which included 333 candidates in the most recent round of firefighter recruitment examinations. More than half the applicants were non-Hispanic Caucasians, at 51 percent, with only 19 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Asian/Filipino, 7 percent mixed race, 5 percent African-American, and 3 percent Native or Pacific Islanders. The remaining applicants declined to state their ethnicity. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of applicants were male, at 94 percent.

The pool of applicants subsequently recruited by the department to interview for a job was scarcely more diverse. Within the 92 applicants selected for an interview, 49 percent were non-Hispanic Caucasians, only 15 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Asian/Filipino, 7 percent African-American, 4 percent mixed race, and 3 percent native. The gender breakdown was similar to that of the applicant pool: 93 percent male and 7 percent female.

However, the department did subsequently offer jobs to a slightly more diverse pool of 26 applicants. Only 42 percent of the new recruits were non-Hispanic Caucausians, with 16 percent Asian/Filipino, 15 percent Hispanic, 11 percent African-American, and 12 percent people of mixed race offered jobs. Eighty-five percent of those offered positions were male, and 15 percent female.

Alameda County Fire Chief David Rocha makes no excuses when it comes to his department's record of promoting diversity within its ranks. He admits that it is doing a poor job of attracting a diverse pool of applicants. He said there is now a concerted effort for the department to stoke interest in targeted minority groups, such as Asian Americans, through the use of preparatory academies and reserve programs. The department also is promoting workshops and getting the word out on social media. "When it comes to Asian and Pacific Islanders, we have not hit our numbers in applying," Rocha admitted in an interview.

Nonetheless, he noted that the department's employee profile is a legacy of almost 30 years of recruitment, hiring, and retention, calling attention to the duration of a typical firefighters' career. And of course, he said, positions within the department must be vacant for the process of promoting greater diversity to begin.

The department's September demographic profile still largely reflected its status quo. It employed 442 people, of whom 61 percent were non-Hispanic Caucasians, 12 percent were Hispanic, 11 percent were mixed race, 8 percent were African American, 7 percent were Asian, and 1 percent were Native or Pacific Islander. Meanwhile, 85 percent were male, with 15 percent female. But not all fire department employees actually fight fires, and the gender breakdown among the 90 employees who do other things was quite different. Fifty-three percent were women, and 47 percent were male.

Overall, Rocha defends his department's recent performance when it comes to hiring women and minorities. "We're better than most in the state, but we are not near the 52 percent of the available workforce of women," he said. He suggested the disparity between male and female employment at the fire department is not unique. "Other careers have similar data sets," he said.

As do other fire departments. Jeff DelBono, a former Alameda firefighters union president, said the county's difficulty in attracting a diverse workforce is also a problem in his city and most others in the state. "There's a lot of factors that come into play," he said. "It's not just the physical part." Earlier this year, for instance, Alameda received 500 applications for its fire academy, but only six were women. As for ethnic diversity, DelBono said, in some countries firefighting is not viewed as a desirable occupation and often looked down upon said. "It can have to do with cultural issues," he said.

The county's fire chief is described by many as affable and capable of leading the department, yet some observers do not believe Rocha fully appreciates the depth of its diversity problem. "When you look at the chief's numbers, it leaves a lot to be desired," Lopez said.

Last June, Lopez, who is of Mexican-American descent, was appalled as she listened to a speech given by a member of this year's firefighters recruiting class. She was shocked by its underlying message. "'Burn the ships' is our motto," the new recruit told the audience. While the use of the phrase was clearly a metaphor to suggest that the new firefighters were completely dedicated to their training, the recruit went on to describe the historical details of his turn of phrase, which a quote from the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. To Lopez and many other Latinos, Cortés symbolizes the genocide of the Meso-American peoples.

Lopez and others interviewed for this article questioned why the graduation speech was not vetted beforehand. Rocha said he typically does not review speeches given by graduates. "I don't ask for a copy of their speech, in the same way I don't ask public officials what they're going to say in a speech," he said, adding nonetheless, "Yeah, it should have been done in a different way."

Similarly, the graduation video has also been highlighted by critics of the chief as an example of a tone-deaf department. Rocha said the fire recruit academy video is typically created for the graduation ceremony, but in some cases used as an outside recruitment tool. In the past, Rocha said he has vetted videos prior to being shown and, in some cases, has recommended edits. On this occasion, the first time he watched it was along with others at the graduation ceremony.

Some critics of the department have been concerned about its lack of diversity for some time. But it was the fallout from the Chinese New Year greeting card last February that brought the issue to the forefront.

Rocha said the department was not aware of the card until it was distributed. Then local news media began receiving copies of the card, which was created by three Asian-American firefighters at the San Lorenzo station and depicted them posing with a vintage fire engine while wearing conical straw hats. Other scenes involved the lighting of fireworks and one of the firefighters boosting another onto the fire truck. Rocha said the department launched an internal investigation soon thereafter.

The chief said he believes the firefighters were guilty of failing to take into account the cultural sensitivities that would later follow their actions. "They just clearly made a mistake and didn't understand the cultural connotation," he added. "How do we expect to impress upon a young Asian American that being a firefighter is something they should do when we have people belittling their culture?"

Serena Chen, president of the Asian Pacific American Democratic Caucus of Alameda County, believes the incident exposed the cultural attitude toward outsiders shared by some members of the department's staff. "The postcard hit a sore nerve and reminded many of us of being made fun of and being bullied," Chen said. "For me, I began to question, is this culture necessary in order to save people's lives?"

Chen found it especially tragic that the creators of the offensive card were themselves Asian Americans, and not members of other racial groups. "It's a real sadness how society diminishes us because we're not white," she said. "So we think we can diminish ourselves to be one of the guys: 'If you want to join this culture, you have to show you can fit in.' And sadly, it could be interpreted as 'I can make fun of myself as much as the white boys do.' It's all a really sad psyche trip."

Some observers simply can't believe that no one with the department brass knew about the card before it was sent out. They note that the photographs were taken at Station 22 in San Lorenzo, formally printed, and then mailed to other firehouses in the county. "Why didn't someone along the food chain think this wasn't alright?" Chen asked. "Where was everybody?"

Chen said she has few solutions for how to change the strongly embedded firefighters' culture. Part of the problem, she said, is that the general public is willing to look away at their transgressions. "It's their face that you see on your worst day. But this is one of those dirty little secrets that nobody talks about because everyone loves firefighters, and they should love them. They're selfless. But the culture has got to change. And how is it going to happen? There's no easy solution."

Several Asian American community leaders became aware of the card, but couldn't actually believe that it was real. "When I received it I thought it was a joke," Carl Chan, the long-time leader of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, told KPIX. "It is quite racially offensive." He and other Asian-American political leaders held a press conference slamming the department shortly after media reports about the card. Meanwhile, elected officials in San Leandro grilled Rocha and questioned whether the incident was due to the department's lack of Asian-American firefighters, other minorities, and women.

The three firefighters remain under investigation. Rocha said a decision could be made soon regarding whether they will be reprimanded for their actions.

San Leandro Councilmember Benny Lee and others, however, said Rocha's decision to pursue the incident as a personnel matter will do little to correct what they see as a department-wide problem with racial insensitivity.

"Our request is they should take a path of doing a full 360 on themselves," Lee said. "He's doing a top-down approach. Whereas, a horizontal approach would put the whole organization on a level field."

The Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Greater Oakland chapter, which Lee is a part, has also expressed disappointment in Rocha's decision to investigate the three firefighters rather then stepping back to consider the bigger picture. "We want him to reconsider," Lee said. "Nobody wants these firefighters to lose their jobs. We want this to be a positive opportunity for the department to learn from. ... We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and say these are real problems."

If not, Lee said he is prepared to argue that approval for San Leandro's future funding of the department be conditioned on it making significant progress in the hiring of women and minorities. "Nobody denies our firefighters are second to none, in terms of saving lives," Lee said. "But there is a culture there and it needs to be fixed."

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