By DAN KRAKER, Minnesota Public Radio News
DULUTH, Minnesota (AP) – When Clint Reff was a young child growing up in Duluth, there was a black firefighter in the Duluth Fire Department – Ernie Butler.
âErnie lived in our neighborhood,â Reff recalls. âSo you saw him and you knew he worked for the fire department. When I was younger he started talking to me about firefighters, getting involved.
Reff grew up, went to high school, and joined the military. But every time he met Butler, the firefighter would tell him to consider following in his footsteps.
Then, when Reff was around 30, he was fired from his job at a local foundry.
“(And it is) I happened to see it again,” Reff told Minnesota Public Radio News. And again, Butler brought up the firefighters. âAnd I’m like, ‘If I have to do this someday, now is the time,’â Reff said. âSo I went to school and I finally listened after about the 20th time he told me about it. “
In 1996, Reff became Duluth’s second African-American firefighter, just a few years before Butler retired. Reff’s father was a pastor, who instilled in him a sense of community service. But without Butler’s persistence, Reff said, he would never have become a firefighter.
The job has changed a lot since he started. The Duluth Department has answered over 14,000 calls this year, and most of them are not fires.
âIt’s almost like it doesn’t involve a knife or a gun, so people call the fire department,â Reff said, whether it’s because of a mental health crisis, a health emergency. – even a rescue on Lake Superior.
Reff feels lucky to have been able to work as a firefighter in Duluth for almost 26 years. He says he will miss the people he works with and serve the community he has lived in since his family moved from New Orleans when he was 1 year old.
âEveryone knows Clint,â said Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj. âHe has deep roots in the community. And people remember him. He has the kind of personality that makes people smile.
Reff’s retirement leaves a great void to be filled in the Duluth Department, Krizaj said, because of those connections to the community, his institutional knowledge and because there is only one African-American firefighter left on a workforce of around 130 people.
In addition, seven women are firefighters in Duluth, which represents about 5% of the staff. There are only a few Native American firefighters and members of other under-represented groups.
Meanwhile, Duluth is diversifying. In the most recent census, around 84% of the city’s population identified as white only, compared to around 89% in the 2010 census.
One of Reff’s latest accomplishments has been to help establish a scholarship fund through the local union to help women and members of other under-represented groups become firefighters, so the department can become more representative of the community it serves.
It is named after Ernie Butler and Pamela Wutz, the first female firefighter in Duluth.
After years of talking about diversity, but without those discussions ever coming to fruition, it was time to act, said Reff. “I was really done having the conversation, because I’ve had it in my career, like five, six times already,” he said.
The union members therefore decided to fund the scholarships out of their own pockets.
This year, with the help of Minnesota Power and the Irving Community Club neighborhood group in West Duluth, the scholarship enabled nine people to take courses at Lake Superior College in order to obtain the necessary certifications to apply for a job at the fire department.
âIt’s more than a start. I mean, one or two or three would’ve been amazing, âsaid Adam Casillas, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 101 in Duluth.
Firefighters, he said, want to make a positive impact every time they answer a call.
âAnd for the fire service to do that, we felt that we had to be better representative of the community, if not more representative of what the community is. We want to be diverse and have multiple backgrounds so that we can be our best when needed. “
Nationally, only about 4% of firefighters are women. And people of color make up only about 15% of the firefighters’ workforce.
In Minnesota, Minneapolis and St. Paul have much more diverse departments than these national averages.
In Minneapolis, nearly 32% of the department is made up of people of color. It’s about 26% in Saint-Paul.
But it took prosecution to help them get there. A lawsuit in the 1970s led to the integration of what was then an all-white department of Minneapolis; a different lawsuit in the 1980s against St. Paul’s department led to the hiring of more women.
And after a few initial increases in recruitment, the number of female firefighters has started to slow again. Women now make up just 7% of firefighters in St. Paul and 9% in Minneapolis.
Melanie Rucker, deputy fire chief in Minneapolis, said that to build a more diverse workforce, departments must actively recruit for it.
Rucker said she was inspired to apply more than 20 years ago after hearing an ad on KMOJ radio in Minneapolis.
âIt was predominantly a predominantly white and male profession,â she said. âSo people of color don’t see, ‘You see it, you can be.’ And when you don’t see it, and when you don’t realize it’s an opportunity for you, you’re not going to apply.
For Rucker, she said applying to be a firefighter was the best decision she’s ever made.
And now, she said people of color in the department are actively visiting local community groups to help inspire others.
âAnd I’m going out, I’m an African American woman myself, and I want them to look at me and say, ‘Hmm, if she can do it, I can do it. “”
The Minneapolis and St. Paul Fire Departments also have programs in which residents of downtown neighborhoods are paid to receive training as an Emergency Medical Technician, or EMT, which can then become a stepping stone for a employment in the service.
Roy Mokosso, deputy chief of the St. Paul Fire Department, said it is necessary to have a staff that reflects the community they serve to build trust. And he said these people bring additional skills.
âI’m just thinking of the calls I’ve been on where I have a native Hmong speaker, or Somali speaker, or Spanish speaker,â Mokosso said, to communicate with a community member they are trying to to help. âSo our service delivery is better because of the diversity of men and women in this department. “
Back in Duluth, Clint Reff and others are hopeful that firefighters may soon be able to diversify their ranks further. Several retirements and military deployments have opened approximately 20 new vacancies at the start of the new year.
Chief Shawn Krizaj said it was too early to say who was going to be hired, but said at least one person from the new scholarship program has made progress in the application process.
“It’s going to be successful if we show people that there is a possibility of getting a job and a career here,” Krizaj said. “Not just going to class or school for two months, and then what?” “
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