I wonder how many of us, if our house was on fire, would stop to consider the ethnicity of the men and women spraying hoses, kicking down doors to save trapped loved ones and delivering medical aid to those who need it.
Dumb question right? Who honestly would even think about something so petty in a dire situation like that. Mobile’s Public Director Richard Landolt may be the only one.
Responding to questions from WKRG reporter Chad Petri last week, Landolt seemed to suggest if he had a five-alarmer he would be out on the sidewalk filling out a census form for Engine Number 9.
“You don’t want a fire truck going into a community with all white firefighters on it,” Landolt said. “That doesn’t reflect the community and we have the talent to get there.”
The statement was made within the context of talking about the overall racial makeup of Mobile’s Fire Department, which is more than 80 percent white. And sure, in a city that’s more than 50 percent black I suppose it’s easy to simply say why isn’t there an even split racially when the fire trucks head out on a run?
It’s a simple question, but also suggests a serious lack of understanding of how firefighters are hired, and also of the city’s recent history. Simply wanting there to be more black firefighters doesn’t make it happen. Future firefighters are vetted by the Personnel Board, which last time I checked was run by an African-American, so it seems unlikely they’re only sending over white applicants or trying to weed out blacks.
For eight years we had a black mayor, Sam Jones, who wasn’t shy about pushing for more black Mobilians in city jobs, and there was a fire chief there who, while white, worked for Jones. So maybe the question isn’t so much why the makeup of the department isn’t equal as it is there an issue with qualified black candidates applying?
Unfortunately what Landolt did was just immerse himself in the sticky sludge of political correctness by suggesting — intentionally or not — that there’s something inherently wrong with all-white crews of firefighters putting out blazes in black neighborhoods. If he were to have conversely said “You don’t want a fire truck going into a community with all black firefighters on it,” people in Fairhope would have been able to hear Fred Richardson’s head explode.
Then I suppose there’s the question of whether anyone wants a fire truck full of Asians coming to save their lives and property. It starts to get very complicated for sure.
“Hey tell the Asian guys to stay in the truck! I’m waiting for the white fire truck to get here!”
Are we going to get to the point where only black firefighters can get black cats out of trees and white firefighters can get white cats out of trees? (OK, I’m going to go ahead and apologize for stereotyping firefighters as getting cats out of trees. I don’t need any nasty letters.)
As a former admiral, Landolt may not be used to much scrutiny of the things he says, but he’s in the public arena now and needs to give a little more thought before popping off. During a spot Monday on FMTALK 106.5 Petri said Landolt made the comment a few times, so it wasn’t just a slip of the tongue.
Hopefully the one thing our new public safety director has learned is that statements of any sort dealing with racial matters are going to get him keelhauled in the media. As an ex-admiral he’s probably had a few guys keelhauled and knows it’s not much fun. (I’d guess.)
Naturally the Firefighters Union wasn’t too excited by Landolt’s statements.
“To imply that you don’t want a fire truck with all white firemen on it responding in a certain community, can be scrutinized to infer that a particular crew might alter or withhold certain services, based on race. This could not be further from the truth. I find this statement not only to be inappropriate and inflammatory, but also undermining of the Fire Dept.’s mission statement, that all employees are tasked with carrying out,” Dewayne Patrick, president of the Mobile Firefighters Association, wrote in a letter to Landolt.
A statement like the one Landolt made just created controversy where it didn’t exist before. Were there people worried about the disparity of the racial makeup of the fire department? Sure. Was anyone actually concerned about the racial makeup of a team of firefighters on a particular truck as they headed out on an emergency run? I doubt it.
Maybe his statement was intended as a way to pave the road further for a new black fire chief after Mayor Stimpson’s original choice didn’t pan out and was demoted. Certainly there’s room for a lot of controversy in that decision and making the fire department look inherently unfair racially may help move what is becoming an increasingly political appointment.
Dewayne Patrick has it right. Let’s look at who’s applying at the personnel board. The fire department also ought to get out and recruit in predominantly African-American schools to get young people interested in a career as a firefighter, while also letting them know what educational requirements they’ll have to meet to make it into the profession.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see more racial diversity or equality in the fire department. It’s a good goal, especially if it means helping more people do what it takes to be qualified for the jobs.
Face it, none of us should care about the color of the person saving our lives and property, it only really matters if they’re qualified and trained properly. Hopefully the public safety director can focus more on achieving his goal of racial equity while keeping that in mind and not create division along the way.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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