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Fire union to delve into discrimination

The city's firefighters union plans to form a human relations committee to help its members deal with and prevent discrimination in the Fire Department, a workplace rocked repeatedly by inappropriate comments over the past year.

The committee would be a go-to group for firefighters who felt harassed or discriminated against. The committee would be a source for information on relevant statutes, laws or city policies.

It also will review the department's hiring and promotional practices and offer suggestions to improve diversity.

"I wanted to take a more active role in preventing discrimination and harassment from happening any more," said Timothy Baker, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2427. Baker will appoint the committee.

Baker said he hopes city officials and the fire department's leadership, which is nonunion, will work with the committee.

"I ask that we stop pointing fingers and start taking responsibility," he said.

Since November 2002, three veteran lieutenants have resigned or been fired after allegations of inappropriate comments at work. City commissioners strengthened the city's internal harassment policy in October and mandated diversity training for all employees.

The department, like the city, has struggled for years to diversify its workforce. With more than 140 employees in six stations, the department has just three black and three Hispanic firefighters.

The recent incidents of racial intolerance have affected the department's image and morale.

"It breaks my heart to hear that firefighters are embarrassed to walk into a grocery store," said Deputy Chief Jeffrey Bullock.

Chief E. Caroll Williams has been trying to change the department's culture. He rotated lieutenants to different shifts and stations so they can't become too cozy with their subordinates. He removed adult programming from the TVs in the fire houses. Supervisors will undergo training on how to facilitate harassment complaints.

"The Fire Rescue Department will have an ongoing commitment to insuring all Fire Rescue personnel understand and abide by our City policy," Williams wrote in a Jan. 15 memo. "If an employee chooses not to follow this policy, as past practice has shown, he or she will be disciplined appropriately, up to and including termination."

_ Shannon Tan can be reached at shtansptimes.com or 445-4174.

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