Fire Department makes push for greater diversity
Though Hispanics make up nearly 15 percent of Winston-Salem’s total population (according to recent Census figures), Mexican-American David Navarro says faces like his are few and far between in the Winston-Salem Fire Department.
Navarro, who completed his firefighter training in June, is one of only a handful of local Hispanic firefighters.
The Fire Department is 27 percent African Americans, a fair representation in a city that is 34 percent black, but Hispanics make up just over one percent of the WSFD.
According to Assistant Fire Chief Freddie Broome, increasing diversity within the Department has been an ongoing effort for the city.
“I think part of it is we’ve got to do a better job of getting out into the communities, and that’s what our mission is now,” said Broome, a 16-year veteran. “We have to show that this is an organization that you want to be a part of.”
Navarro, 25, agrees.
“Basically, I guess (Hispanic) people don’t think that’s open to them, like an option for them,” the father of two said of becoming a firefighter.
The former school bus driver and construction worker admitted that fire service wasn’t a career he had considered himself prior to 2007, when his younger brother, construction worker Emmanuel Navarro, made headlines in their hometown (Greenville) after rushing into a burning house to rescue a family of four.
“It was a pretty big deal. He spent six months in a burn center because of everything he did. That kind of opened my mind to the fire service,” recalled Navarro, who chose his brother to perform his pinning during his WSFD graduation ceremony. Navarro was the only Hispanic in the class of 13 graduates.
“I just admired what he did. It set the course for what I wanted to do,” he said.
Navarro, the second of four children, says he couldn’t be happier about his career choice.
“I’ve had a blast,” he declared. “The best part is a successful job done. When you get in there and get the fire put out, that’s the best feeling because you know you went in there and did what you had to do. Everybody goes home happy.”
Navarro, who is assigned to the Station # 5 on the city’s south side, believes the local Hispanic community is likely home to many others who, like Navarro might truly enjoy working in the fire service, but simply never considered it as a viable career option. He recently hosted a public education session about the Fire Department at his church, La Roca Church on West Clemmonsville Road, and said it was well received.
“A lot of the kids feel like, ‘Now, I want to be a firefighter,’” he related. “If we did more education like that, I think it would help.”
Women are also few and far between within the Fire Department. Broome said only 17 are currently on the force. City native Danielle Edwards is one of them. Edwards, 27, who also graduated in June, said being the only woman in the fire house does have its perks.
“I have my own bedroom and my own bathroom,” quipped the Appalachian State University alumna. “The guys, they have to share.”
Edwards, an accomplished athlete, set her sights on the fire service a year ago, after returning home from playing professional basketball in Portugal. Despite being the only woman, Edwards says she fits right in at Station #6 on Academy Street.
“Being around a group of people, it’ll still be the same as being around a basketball team,” she related. “You still have that team feeling.”
Edwards said she thinks the grueling agility test that recruits must pass may keep many women away. Even as an athlete in peak condition, Edwards, the only female in the recent graduating class, said the test was difficult.
“It was long, and it was hard,” she recalled. “It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.”
Broome said the Department is hoping to launch a women’s boot camp soon to help women prepare for the agility test and boost female representation within the Suppression division.
“We do have a lot of women that show up to the physical agility test that don’t make it through,” he stated.
Though African American men are fairly well represented, from Fire Chief Antony Farmer and Broome on down, they are still very much in the minority, said recent grad David Heck, a Winston-Salem native and the father of one son. He is the only African American at Station # 18 on Peace Haven Road, although he says race is not an issue at the firehouse.
Becoming a member of the Fire Department is like joining a family, he said.
“The best part about this job is the camaraderie,” he declared. “Sometimes, you can get in some crazy situations and knowing you’ve got people with you that are going to support you and not let you get hurt is comforting. Any given day, at any given moment, we’ve got each others’ back.”
African Americans enjoy a much higher representation at the Fire Department compared to the city’s Police Department (the police force has a black presence of only 14.8 percent), but Hispanics and women are found more often in police uniforms, making up four percent and 14 percent of the local force, respectively. Police Chief Scott Cunningham said he believes longstanding rifts and misunderstandings between minorities and the police have given rise to negative perceptions that keep some minorities away from applying. The Police Department also utilizes a more stringent background check that bars many from being considered.
The Police Department is also working to improve its diversity through a variety of ongoing efforts, including launching a scholarship program at historically black colleges and universities.
“All police agencies struggle with diversity, but we believe we will continue to see improvement in our agency and that we will continue to hire a diverse workforce that is competent to wear the WSPD badge,” said Cunningham.
Men and women interested in becoming firefighters can learn more about their prospective career at a Fire Department recruiting fair from noon to 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 7, at Fire Station No. 1, 651 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem. The application deadline for the next firefighter training class is Sept. 10. For more information go to HYPERLINK “http://www.CityofWSFire.org” www.CityofWSFire.org.