Fighting “Racism” Rather than Fires

Robert Charles, American Renaissance, January 1996

Burning Building

Credit Image: Eric Hensley / Wikimedia

[Editor’s Note: This is just one of thirteen essays in our collection of first-hand reports about the reality of race, Face to Face with Race.]

Affirmative action always has costs. Usually, the costs are lower standards, poor performance, bad morale, and lost profits. In a fire department there can be other costs: lost lives.

I joined the San Francisco Fire Department in mid-1966, in the days before affirmative action. I got my first house fire, just a couple of weeks out of the Fire College, while I was a probie (a probationary firefighter) assigned to Engine 36. The fire was in an apartment building of six or eight flats, just two blocks from Station 47. This meant the men from 47 would probably get to kick in the door and get first water on the fire, not us.

Sure enough, 47 was already there when we pulled up and hit the ground running. They were at the door of the burning flat, but because of the heat they couldn’t advance beyond the front door even though their nozzle stream was at full force. As we ran up the stairs, carrying bundles of hose, someone yelled, “There is an old couple in there; they’re not outside.”

Ed, a 20-year veteran who had been assigned to break in the new probie, grabbed my arm and said quietly, “Come on, kid.” I dropped the hose and we ran out the hallway door to the outside stairway with access to the back door of each flat. Smoke was seeping out of the door we wanted. With a couple of kicks, Ed shattered the panel next to the knob, reached in, threw the bolt, and we were in the back porch.

On our hands and knees, blinded by thick smoke, we crawled right onto two unconscious people. Ed hoisted one of them onto my shoulder, took the other himself, and we ran to the ambulance, which took them immediately to the hospital. Ed gave me a “Nice going, probie,” and we went back to work.

Back in quarters a couple of hours later, while cleaning equipment, I kept thinking how smoothly the whole thing had run, how each man had the strength, the size and the intelligence to do what had to be done, and did it without hesitation and usually without orders. Unfortunately, this is frequently not the case today.

Recently an Arson Investigator told me what he often sees when he arrives at fires still in progress: Inefficiency, hesitation, and confusion, mostly from non-white and female firefighters and officers, hired and promoted beyond their capabilities. His job in the Arson Bureau takes him all over town, and he confirmed that fires that would have been handled quickly and efficiently in the past now get out of hand and become greater alarms.

What has happened to the smooth-running department that I joined nearly 30 years ago? Why have the Eds of my first fire been replaced by all-too-many slackers, dullards and women who can’t pull their own weight? Water weighs eight and one third pounds per gallon, and always will. So why are we saddled with undersized quota hires who can’t drag water-filled hose lines, and are a liability in the six-man lift when we need to raise a 50-foot wooden ladder that weighs over four hundred pounds?

Why do I have to take orders from a quota-hire black lieutenant who went to a parking lot, looking for a “Cadillac” when he should have been looking for a “cardiac”? What kind of grade did a quota-hire black get on his entrance examination when he writes on an injury report, “He jump out the window and have sprangs in his angle”? And what is the IQ of another quota-hire black who wrote on an incident report, “The deceased greeted us at the door”? And what of the affirmative-action black who said he could interpret to a Hispanic woman what a fire had done to her kitchen, and told her “El stovo broko”?

I well remember a fire in August 1993, at which a woman quota-hire driver/pump operator was relieved of her duties on the spot because she couldn’t do the basic job: supply water to the building’s stand-pipe system and get water to her crew, who had taken their hose line directly to the seat of the fire.

Another failure of affirmative action occurred at the same fire, but with more tragic results. An inexperienced black lieutenant quota-hire lost his life because he didn’t recognize the signs of an impending back-draft (explosion). Eight other firefighters had thrown themselves to the floor to avoid the heat that was sure to come (later estimated at 2000 degrees), but the medical examiner’s report said the man had been standing, and had not properly used [M]any of his protective clothing. Shouts from the firefighter bashing in the door to “hit the floor,” along with the eerie calm that precedes a back-draft were wasted on this unfortunate man, who was hired and promoted beyond his abilities. Affirmative-action literally killed him.

There was a bitter epilogue to this incident. As they always do, hundreds of firefighters from the entire region attended the funeral to pay respects to a fallen comrade. The crowd spilled into the aisles and rear of the church. The former president of the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association — who was hired and given four promotions because he is black — took the opportunity to lecture the congregation about racism. It is a miracle no one walked out.

The Mission of the Department

We got here, of course, through affirmative action. The mission of our department is to protect property and save lives, but judges and other unelected bureaucrats have decided that race- and sex-based hiring is more important than fighting fires. Standards of strength, size, and intelligence, have all been lowered in the name of diversity. The cost has been great.

The San Francisco Fire Department started its first race-based hiring program in 1970, just six years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was supposed to have ruled out race as a job qualification. Historically, the city had banned only women from the department, and there had been Hispanics on the force for decades. Blacks and Asians began to join in the mid-1950s, but their numbers did not satisfy the ethnic bean counters. Then, as now, the charge was that an “old boy network” explained the predominance of Irish, Italians, and Germans in the department.

In an attempt to remedy imagined wrongs, the city established something called the Fire Safety Technician (FST) program. The U.S. Department of Labor took a close interest in it because if it proved successful, it could be a model for departments all over the country. The program was to be restricted to non-whites and — this was crucial — they were exempted from taking the standard civil service examination.

The exam I took in 1965 had been given since about 1950, and was nearly identical in scope and difficulty to the test I took in 1959 to get into San Francisco State University. The problem for non-whites had never been an “old boy network;” Asians just didn’t take the test and the blacks who took it frequently failed.

The first group of 99 potential FSTs was cut down to 23 through literacy and background checks. That left 17 blacks, one Samoan, one Arab, two Hispanics, and two Asians. FSTs were supposed to have disadvantaged backgrounds, but this was a joke. One candidate’s father was a medical doctor, another was a high-placed civil servant, and at least two had parents who were wealthy property-owners. Some of these “disadvantaged” men had graduated from U.C. Berkeley and the University of San Francisco.

The idea was that FSTs would go through special training that would bring them up to the level of men who had passed the civil service examination, and they would then be put in the field as full-fledged firefighters. After a year, they would take a follow-up examination to see if they should be kept in the department. More than 20 years later, that exam has yet to be given.

How did the first class do? Within three years, the Samoan had gone back to Samoa, leaving an unpaid balance on a loan of more than $10,000 from the Firefighter Credit Union. When the Arab failed to understand a telephone message about a possible heart attack, he was sent to a community college to improve his English. This so upset him that he sued the department and the city and got a stress disability pension. One of the Hispanics had simply walked away from the job, and the other had died on duty — from an overdose of heroin. Six of the blacks have been fired or suspended for alcohol or drugs.

Those who were still on the job were not doing very well either. The first promotions to which an entry-level firefighter can aspire are lieutenant, Arson Inspector, or Fire Prevention Inspector (which involves inspecting buildings for possible fire hazards). By the early 1980s, it was clear that none of the FSTs was preparing for the difficult examinations that must be passed to get these jobs, but an unexpected solution to their stagnating careers presented itself. The Bureau of Fire Prevention had suffered a rash of retirements, transfers, and promotions, and suddenly needed more inspectors.

Until then, the only way to become an inspector had been to get one of the top scores on the Bureau of Fire Prevention exam. Firefighters spend months and even years studying regulations and building codes in order to do well on the exam, and for good reason. Inspectors are paid 20 percent more than ordinary firefighters, do not have to work at night, and do not have to risk their lives fighting fires.

This time, inspectors would be chosen differently. The examination was waived, and selection would be based on seniority of those who volunteered for the job. It sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime chance for an easy promotion, and it was — but not for whites. Every one of the ten new no-exam inspectors was non-white: six blacks and an Asian from the FST program, and three other blacks with less seniority. When white volunteers with more seniority than those chosen asked what happened to their applications, the Chief of Fire Prevention told them they were “the wrong color.”

Fire Prevention Inspectors spend most of their time out of the office, presumably inspecting buildings. By 1987, it became common knowledge in the department that the Asian was working in his mother’s real estate office when he was supposed to be on duty, and that some of the blacks had rented a house, where they went to avoid work. The Asian and at least one of the blacks may never have visited any of the 600 buildings assigned to them that year and were filing false inspection reports. One claimed to have inspected 200 buildings in a single day, whereas a typical daily total for a conscientious inspector is fifteen.

By late 1987 the scandal was too widely-known to ignore and the department reluctantly conducted an internal investigation. Political correctness triumphed: No action was taken against the Asian and the black; instead, their white supervisor was reprimanded for not managing them properly.

Early in 1988, the same two inspectors, still under a cloud despite their official exoneration, claimed to have found a swastika in their office. Racial pressure groups and the liberal media made an enormous stink out of this incident, which “proved” there was racism in the department. The two inspectors filed suit for three million dollars in “stress” damages. Curiously, two other inspectors who shared the same office (one of whom was Jewish) told everyone that the incident had been staged, but no one was listening.

The FBI was called in, with much fanfare, and eventually exposed the hoax. The media suddenly went quiet, and the inspectors dropped their $3-million suit. Two months later, the black was promoted to lieutenant. The Asian has been on unpaid sick leave since mid-1992. Such have been the results of the department’s first try at race-based hiring.

Women in the Department

Although blacks were clamoring for special treatment in the early 1970s, the department didn’t hire women until 1987. By 1995, thanks to drastically reduced size, strength, and agility standards, San Francisco had hired more women firefighters than nearly any city in the country. Stories of physical weakness and actual cowardice are now legion. When the rats and cockroaches are running out of a burning building, some women find novel reasons to join them.

For example, some distaff firefighters have let all the compressed air out of their portable air packs, which means they have to go outside and get a new bottle. Others decide to take up the self-appointed and utterly unnecessary task of following hose lines from hydrant to pumper and pumper to building, while their crew mates are inside putting water on the fire. At another fire, a woman who had just climbed a 50-foot ladder onto a roof announced that she was “dehydrated,” and promptly climbed down again to get a drink of water. Another woman, told to connect a hose to a water source while her crew advanced the nozzle 100 feet closer to the seat of the fire, simply left the building without giving them water. “It was too hot,” she explained later.

Some women are simply too weak to raise even the 24-foot ladder, one of the lightest in use. A local Spanish television station came by one day to film the city’s first Latina firefighter during her mandatory daily drills. They politely excused themselves and left after she repeatedly dropped the ladder on her own head. Later, when her officer gently suggested that she start a weight training program, she accused him of sexism and filed a written complaint. Of course, women like her are in the department only because physical standards are so watered down they are virtually meaningless. When I talk to women about the pre-female test I had to pass nearly 30 years ago, their eyes bulge; not one that I have spoken to thinks she could have passed. The new non-standards apply to men, too, so we have weaklings of both sexes.

As if under-sized, under-muscled women were not bad enough, sex-quota hiring means that recent immigrants from Europe and South America have gotten preference over better-qualified, native-born San Francisco men. This only compounds the unfairness and weakens the department.

The best women are mostly lesbians. We have a group of athletic, outgoing, sock-you-in-the-arm women who are eager to at least try to perform at an acceptable level, without whining, without ducking work, and without filing frivolous sex-bias suits. They’re not as good as the pre-affirmative action men, but they can do the job.

Of course, there are exceptions among the lesbians. One was a mean-spirited, scowling, probable sociopath, who was lionized in the press as the first women and first lesbian to make lieutenant. It usually takes ten or 12 years for a firefighter to move up to that rank, but the department was under tremendous pressure from a consent decree, and promoted her after just two years.

She sued the department, making the astonishing claim that she had been sexually harassed in 20 of the 25 stations in which she had worked. The jury ignored the testimony of more than 40 witnesses against her, and awarded her $300,000 in damages. Fortunately, she is now looking for another job, because one of the conditions of the settlement was that she resign. She had such a foul disposition that even other lesbians in the department called her “the unhappiest dyke” they had ever met.

These are just a few of the sorry results of affirmative action. I used to talk to older, retired firefighters about what had happened to the cohesive, top-notch department they used to work for. Eventually they told me to stop; hearing about it just made them sick.

It is impossible to know how often it has happened, but quota hiring has undoubtedly meant that people have died who did not have to die. Buildings burned that did not have to burn. This is the price that all fire departments pay for race-based hiring schemes that lower standards, reward incompetence, overlook violations, and destroy morale.

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