Extinguishing racism in the firehouse Baltimore County: Ruppersberger, O'Neill must stress that discrimination is intolerable.

March 08, 1998

RACIAL TENSIONS within the workplace are never easy to deal with. People let go of misconceptions and suspicions only of their own volition.

But leaders can, and should, set the tone for a tolerant, inclusive work environment by taking a hard line against expressions of HTC prejudice, promoting diversity and themselves treating all employees as equals.

The Baltimore County Fire Department requires such leadership. Police stations and firehouses, cultures long dominated by whites, historically have been slow to progress in racial matters. The county department's problems are particularly troubling considering the growing diversity of the citizenry it serves.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating complaints of bias in the Fire Department. Last year, a black firefighter found a noose hanging with his gear. Ninety percent of the staff and virtually all the top brass are white. Last month, the county's Office of Fair Practices issued a memo to new fire Chief John F. O'Neill, saying not enough has been done to promote diversity, two years after the department was advised to do so.

Budget pressures and promotion rules have played a role in slowing the advancement of blacks. But lack of leadership has been the main problem. Top officials have not made racial progress enough of a priority. Sensitivity training was halted in December 1996 and is only now resuming. Longtime former Chief Paul H. Reincke admits that as recently as late 1996, he told a racially inflammatory joke to whites in his office. Such callousness creates an environment in which noose-plantings fester.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger touts his new chief's experience in fair practices. Mr. Ruppersberger, who hasn't been shy about exacting his influence in other departments, must be stronger and more vocal on this issue. He must make sure Mr. O'Neill, appointed chief in December, and all the firefighters who work for him understand that he expects a visible, immediate commitment to making the department more welcoming and promising for minorities.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.