City Desk

The Fire This Time: How Many Black Fire Investigators Does D.C. Have?

Around the country, the nation's firehouses have continually played out bothersome race polemics. At times, the controversy has had to with the argument that fire departments were providing culturally biased firefighter exams, leaving applicants of color out in the cold. When authorities have moved to adjust standards in order to include the put-upon group, white firefighters have claimed reverse discrimination and filed law suits. Here in D.C., a department that says it has about an even split of white and black firefighters has seen its share of litigation, too.

White and black firefighters have sued for both discrimination and reverse discrimination in the District. In one riveting lawsuit filed in February 2009, among many other allegations, black fire investigators Gerald Pennington and Gregory Bowyer contended that under former Fire Chief Dennis Rubin, who is white, the fire department attempted to change the demographics of the Fire Investigations Unit by pushing unqualified white firefighters into the elite pack.

Rubin served as chief from 2007 to 2010; fire investigators check out fires when the cause is suspicious. They carry guns and have arrest powers. Though the lawsuit has gotten lots of press because of accusations made about a botched fire investigation, not much attention has been paid to the suggestion that black fire investigators were being overrun.  According to numbers provided by the D.C. Fire Department this week, more than a year later, there is a slight white majority in the unit.

According to the suit, in the spring of 2007, Rubin "instituted a new race-based policy under which he assigned more white personnel to the FIU with the goal [of] increasing the percentage of white investigators." The suit says that prior to 2007, the FIU "had for many years been majority-African-American." Then Rubin's administration began cheating the system, the lawsuit claims, invoking their own brand of unofficial affirmative action. "Defendants relaxed the standards for promotion to fire investigator in order to ensure the addition of white candidates it assigned to the unit," court papers say. They also assert some of the whites were inserted into leadership positions.

These days, applicants are required to have been on the job three years. The civil complaint says prior to 2007, the requirement was five. The department also loosened the requirements regarding body fat, criminal background checks and psychological evaluations, says the suit.

One requirement has stayed firmly in place, though: Potential investigators need to pass a fire investigator exam, getting at least 70 percent of the answers right. Bowyer and Pennington allege that a white superior helped white applicants cheat, though filings don't provide any proof to back that up.

Whether there was cheating, the 70 percent majority court papers say blacks had within the unit at the beginning of 2007 is certainly gone. Of 22 current investigators, five are black males; five are black females; 11 are white males and one is a white female. That means there's now a 54 percent white majority within the unit. That's more balanced than court papers complain it was in 2009, when blacks were 40 percent of the team. A lawyer for the city declined comment. A lawyer for the two fire investigators didn't return calls. The suit has a status hearing on April 29.

Of course, 22 is really too small a number to get much clarity from, as the subtraction or addition of even one or two people changes the percentage significantly. But D.C. Fire spokesperson Pete Piringer does admit things have changed within FIU. He says the changes "are reflective of the community," though. He contends fire department demographics are slowly changing because, as recent Census data shows, District demographics are.

"Their allegations, I think, are unproven," says Piringer of the suit's accusation of racism. Asked why race repeatedly crops up as a subject among District firefighters, Piringer blames the wider culture: "I think it's a reflection on society in general."

That may be true. But divisiveness among firefighters would seem to play a special role in the discourse on racial politics. Firefighters, more so than politicians or cops, are seen as the ultimate good guys, as paragons of civil service. (Who else runs into burning buildings as part of their job?) That black firefighters can perceive the arrival or promotion of white colleagues as the arrival or promotion of unqualified whites, and vice-versa, points to a problem. As a society, we've always relied on the idea that an unbiased meritocracy could remedy racism (no one should be "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character"), when racism may be more of a perception problem than a mechanical one. The most dangerous part of it being a perception problem is that evolving, amending, or elevating standards won't help, because each side will continue to engage in tribalism and continue to believe they've been wronged.

Photo by ElvertBarnes via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

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  • seDCdude

    Ayy SERIOUS........YOU CAN"T BE!!

    Too easy, you see, we, US, Blacks....have had to find some solace and comfort in establishing FUBUs......FOR US BY US in this kuntry due to what I have already mentioned!!!

    You know it, yo mammy knew it and yo daddy lived talkin' stupid right now!!

    All those Black "suspects" have had to fly in the face of and 2nd class to WHITE SUBJECT in this kuntry....

    for every 1 BLACK institution dedicated to Black advancement, there are 50 WHITE flourishing and active institutions upholding and sharing in YOUR ideology!!!!

    Your entry alone validates my point, in order for BLACKS to be relevant to self, we've had to create those what you have listed; without doing so was like asking a cat to find and feed a dog a bone!!!

    Think about it, my lilly white friend, or are you too bigoted to do so...this kuntry is and always will be RACIST, please!!! Sounds like along with your denial, guilt and deep seated bigotry, YOU ARE JEALOUS/ENVIOUS of blacks perhaps!!

    Your post along with a few other's here notably, #19; the sheer and utter stupidity and irrelevance of #22 and 27 based on the OBVIOUS, 38, 40, 42, have only sought to TOLERATE blacks, you don't respect or accept BLACKNESS, period!

    You are a joke!

    oh, and as far as your answer statement/answer.....can you say FEDERAL OVERSIGHT!

    Dude you are pitiful, I will not get into a nit picking session with your fraud self, but let me add that in no way or shape will I attempt to defend wrong, but it's politics as usual and to further bring validity to the racism debacle, it's only good if whites do it, while Blacks may take a penny, WHITES steal the entire secret there buddy!!!

    Try again...all closed eyes ain't sleep man!

  • seDCdude

    Never said you did and I don't have anything to do with what or how collectively, another person voted for what I ALREADY KNEW!

    1 things for certain we are not a monolith but we most certainly are treated and dealt with interestingly enuff, by the color of our skin 1st, gender 2nd and then CREDENTIALS!

    Now you, you are my focus, not the POTUS!

    THIS BLOG AIN'T ABOUT HIM, but more poignantly YOU AND YOURS and how fukked up your mindsets are!

    You are the guilty party, "the blame the victim" purveyor here of ignorance and lies!

    My conscious is clear, my people were stolen and forced here and we've had to fight for everything we have, get and will receive due to........ you guessed it....RACISM!

    Nobody's complaining or bitchin', just pointing out what Stevie Wonder could see!

  • r.u.serious


    The angry black man finally comes out. Quit patting yourself on your back and trying to give the same history class over and over.

    The only correct statement you've made so far is that this country will always be a racist country. Everything else is just your opinion. Before you give me a class on how my parents feel, or your ass-sumption on were I come from, or my beliefs, I will let you in on a little secret.

    The majority of the Caucasian race came over here in boats from other county’s as my family had. They were processed at either New England or New York. The kind folks there changed my family’s birth name to something they thought was more appropriate. They were then sent to slum and shanty towns and put into poverty from the moment they stepped foot in this country. They were discriminated against when they applied for jobs. Folks already here in America screamed at them to get on a boat and come back to where they came from, just like the tens of thousands before them.

    In closing I would like to state that the white man isn’t the reason why America is still a racist country. Angry black folk like yourself help feed that racial flame with your out dated history classes about how only the black man was oppressed. This is true of all ethnic groups; keep to yourself and don’t trust so and so. I know that comes a shock to you, but a fact is a fact.

    If you hate America so bad, what is keeping you here? If it is so racist and it makes you that angry, why are you still a US citizen? Why would you want to raise your children in such a dismal place? You know the answer and so do I. It’s just an excuse that will always be sounded when things don’t fit your agenda. Stay angry, it suits you better.

  • r.u.serious

    I almost forgot...thank you for the ebonics class.

  • r.u.serious


    Your post along with a few other's here notably, #19; the sheer and utter stupidity and irrelevance of #22 and 27 based on the OBVIOUS, 38, 40, 42, have only sought to TOLERATE blacks, you don't respect or accept BLACKNESS, period!

    The same could be said about you. I guess you only tolerate whites, you don't respect or accept WHITENESS period.

    Quit being so angry and miserable. Do something positive instead of continuosly playing the blame game. Are you that insecure and naive to think that white people don't know there is corruption all around? Are you that insecure and naive to think that the white man gets all the breaks? If you made that statement 50 years ago, you might have made a case against a certain few, but there were plenty of poor white folk back then too.

    But you will never teach that in your history class that you spew to a certain targeted audience.

  • seDCdue

    r u serious

    The only angry, white MALE here is you, in fact, wasn't there a movement of sorts right around 1998 due to the NEGRO advancement in this kuntry?????

    your not worth the band width!

    Learn how to use words correctly and spell them before you critique ANYBODY dummy!

    Apples and Oranges in relevance to your peeps white flight and Blacks slavery, bondage, discrimination, identity raping, pillagement and manipulation of well over 400 + years.....

    To leave is what your kind really would like to happen....interestingly enuff, your stupid self let the true cat out the bag, why should we leave when we have fought, marched and voted our way to respectability in THIS kuntry....LOL

    Naw, you take your pastey, predictable self back to the mountains of europe where you came from, see how that works for ya!!!

  • r.u.serious

    Ummm....yea what he said.

    What did you actually fight for? When did you march? You voted for Obama, so you will get a check mark in the box for that.

    I might be pasty, but my people never sold me. If you think your little racial remarks get me wound are sadly mistaken. Stay black and keep up the hate, you sad little soul of a man.

  • seDCdude

    they didn't have to sale you, you had no value or clue other than being hateful and manipulative, and that's because you were to uncivilized to see the weakness that still permeates your pasty ass to this day!

    Furthermore, my guilt riddled, hate ladened buddy, my SOUL is what your kind have been trying to understand, undermine and under value for years...I told you, give a clown enuff rope and he shall surely hang himself....nothing worst than a fool than a DAMN fool, carry on!

  • r.u.serious


    Is that all you have left?

    I can’t believe you had the nerve to correct my grammar and spelling. I think the word you were looking for is ‘sell’ not ‘sale’.

    You are too easy of a mark, allow me to retort. Give this some thought the next time you pull up into a gas station to get some fuel for that rimmed out POS you drive. You know the one with the check engine light on. The one that you think gives you status. Yea, that one! As you run to the ATM machine inside to get a balance print out to see if you have $11.00 to put in the tank, because that is how you roll. Use that time while the ATM is printing out your balance receipt to call the family member who was responsible enough to make sure your babies from different mommas always gets a birthday or Christmas present. Thank them for being responsible and doing the right thing, because we know that isn’t you.

    You see, you’re that guy. The angry black youth who wasn’t alive when Martin Luther King walked this earth. Still ill informed, still playing the blame game. When the shit you talk finally has merit, folks might actually take you serious.

    No need to reply. No need to defend yourself for not being that guy, because I know it’s you. I see you at intersections, at ball games, at stores, in gas stations all the time. You come in many shapes, color and sizes. Even white!

  • seDCdude

    WOW, that guy you know so well, self implosion YA THINK!!

    SALE is what I typed, correct??!!

    While your coward ass continues to miss the mark by allowing your fool self to actually believe da hype; those stereotypes you wish for US, YOU MISSED PATHETICALLY! Not all brothas are "caught up" in y'alls matrix you clown!!

    In fact I'm that guy who does not drive, BY CHOICE, but I do fly EMIRATES 1st class twice a year, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, who has been mentoring for well over 30 years with the characters of MEN to prove it, will not hesitate to rid the planet of trash such as yo'self at the remotest of threats, has multiple children by my WIFE and grew up in SE DC, educated in DC public schools and NEVER left you moron!

    Damn FOOL has been superseded by COMPLETE FOOL!

  • seDCdude

    You got so much to say, show your face so we can see who's really who!

    Drop your real name and I'll touch basis wit'cha ASAP coward!!

  • r.u.serious

    It's...they didn't have to sell you. Not 'sale' you.

    Oh, and your clear to pump gas on pump #4.

    They call me, Shade Whitey.

  • seDCdude

    Oh shit, how did I miss this bit piece, even more tell tale of WHO and WHAT your gump, angry, bigoted true self is.....

    "That will fix it. Put the academy back in DC high schools which just so happens to be predominately black.

    Straight from the article"

    you damn skippy it needs to be reinstated due to all the melanin challenged imports we received en masse several years ago under Thompson/Rubin and Fenty's watch!!

    There's power in #s shitbird and you know why not balance the pendulum.......

    Is that you HOMO thug, mad at all black advancement, collection or successes....always got something to say about who, what or where when it pertains to BROTHAS, ayy shit stain, I got news for ya...who cares, YOU ARE IRRELEVANT, you have underachieved all your life, what yo pappy ain't include you in the will cuz of your weirdness, your withdrawn and bipolar ways!!!

    It's so evident in your rants shitbird....ayy sunshine, what's you mad cuz you weren't physically and mentally tuff enuff to even get in the ACADEMY, let alone the department....LOL, that's it isn't it, not only did I pass the test, I scored in the top 15 out of 2600 applicants, became a DCF and rolled out as if nothing happened, mde my mark and took on bigger and better challenges, something your extra smedium ass could only dream of farmboy!!

    I get it now, you fell short in everything in life, if not for the help of yo daddies nutsack and yo mammeez titeez....dude pleez, you are funny and obvious!

    Go outside, look at the diversity....brothers in suits, uniforms and DOING.....


    Oh yeah.....leave your real name or whereabouts so we can settle this thang, it's a BLACK thang, you wouldn't understand!

  • r.u.serious


  • r.u.serious

    Here's your game.

    1. Talk yourself up!

    2. If that fails, try to make him say something racist. Then point finger and say "I told you so."

    3. If that fails. Talk about him, call him pastey and blah, blah, blah.

    4. If that fails. Try to bully him with more threats so that you can intimidate him to agree with you.

    5. If that fails. Talk about him, his fmaily and play the bully once again.

    The list goes on and on.

    Your quote "Oh yeah.....leave your real name or whereabouts so we can settle this thang, it's a BLACK thang, you wouldn't understand!"

    I do understand. I live in a gated community in Rockville. When you get to the gate, ask for Nutz.

    Deez Nutz.

  • r.u.serious

    Turn the lights off when your done.

  • Ricardo Cabeza

    Why eezit chu black guys geet so worked up about all dis racist sheet? Ay-yi-yi! Have a burrito and relax!

  • seDCdude


    typed like the true bitch you are....gated community in Rockville my ass; you sniveling, pompous, BROKE, broke back affliction......only gates you go behind are the gates to St. Es....clown!

    And I knew you were who/what I typed you is!!

    I see you won't reveal yourself by name; otherwise you are front and center Jethro!


  • seDCdude

    I struck a nerve didn't I JETHRO??????