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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.

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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."

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