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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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Several Asian American community leaders became aware of the card, but couldn't actually believe that it was real. "When I received it I thought it was a joke," Carl Chan, the long-time leader of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, told KPIX. "It is quite racially offensive." He and other Asian-American political leaders held a press conference slamming the department shortly after media reports about the card. Meanwhile, elected officials in San Leandro grilled Rocha and questioned whether the incident was due to the department's lack of Asian-American firefighters, other minorities, and women.

The three firefighters remain under investigation. Rocha said a decision could be made soon regarding whether they will be reprimanded for their actions.

San Leandro Councilmember Benny Lee and others, however, said Rocha's decision to pursue the incident as a personnel matter will do little to correct what they see as a department-wide problem with racial insensitivity.

"Our request is they should take a path of doing a full 360 on themselves," Lee said. "He's doing a top-down approach. Whereas, a horizontal approach would put the whole organization on a level field."

The Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Greater Oakland chapter, which Lee is a part, has also expressed disappointment in Rocha's decision to investigate the three firefighters rather then stepping back to consider the bigger picture. "We want him to reconsider," Lee said. "Nobody wants these firefighters to lose their jobs. We want this to be a positive opportunity for the department to learn from. ... We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and say these are real problems."

If not, Lee said he is prepared to argue that approval for San Leandro's future funding of the department be conditioned on it making significant progress in the hiring of women and minorities. "Nobody denies our firefighters are second to none, in terms of saving lives," Lee said. "But there is a culture there and it needs to be fixed."

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