When Clint Reeve was a little kid growing up in Duluth, there was one black firefighter in the Duluth Fire Department – Ernie Butler.
Reeve recalls, “Ernie used to live in our neighborhood. So you’ll see him and know he works in the fire department. When I was younger, he started talking to me about the fire service, getting involved in it.”
Reeve grew up, went to high school and joined the army. But every time he came across Butler, the firefighter would ask him to follow in his footsteps.
Then, when he was about 30 years old, he was laid off from his job at a local foundry.
“[And it] Reeve said. And again, Butler raised the fire department. And I’m like, ‘And I’m like, ‘If I’m going to do it one day,’ said Reeve, ‘now’s the time.
In 1996, Reeve became the second African-American firefighter to follow Duluth, just two years before Butler retired. Reeve’s father was a minister who instilled in him a sense of community service. Without Butler’s insistence, Reeve said, he would never have become a firefighter.
The job has changed a lot since he started. Duluth’s department has responded to more than 14,000 calls this year, most of which are not fires.
“It’s like it’s not a knife or a gun, people are calling the fire department,” Reeve said, “whether it’s a mental health crisis, a health emergency — even a rescue in Lake Superior.”
Reeve feels lucky to have been able to serve as a firefighter in Duluth for nearly 26 years. He says he will miss the people he works with, and serves the community in which he lives since his family moved from New Orleans when he was one year old.
“Everyone knows Clint,” said Duluth Fire Chief Sean Kreizage. “He has deep roots in the community. People remember him. He has the kind of personality that puts a smile on people’s faces.”
We want to be diverse
Krizag said Reeve’s retirement leaves a huge gap to fill in the Duluth department, because of those community connections, his institutional knowledge, and because there is only one African-American firefighter left on a crew of about 130.
In addition, seven women work as firefighters from Duluth – that’s about five percent of the staff. There are only a few Native American firefighters and members of other underrepresented groups.
Meanwhile, Duluth’s diversity is increasing. At the most recent census, about 84 percent of the city’s residents identified as white only, compared to about 89 percent at the 2010 census.
One of Reeve’s final accomplishments was to help create a scholarship fund through the local union to help women and members of other underrepresented groups become firefighters, so that the department can become more reflective of the community it serves.
It is named after Ernie Butler and Pamela Watts, Duluth’s first female firefighter.
Reeve said that after years of talking about diversity, but without those conversations ever getting anywhere, it was time for action. “I’m really done with the conversation, because I’ve had it in my career, like five or six times already,” he said.
So the guild members decided to fund the scholarships out of their own pockets.
This year, with help from Minnesota Power and the neighborhood group Irving Community Club in West Duluth, the scholarship paid nine people to take classes at Lake Superior College to earn the certifications needed to apply for a job in the fire department.
“This is more than just a start. I mean, one or two or three would be great,” said Adam Casillas, president of the International Association of 101 Local Firefighters in Duluth.
He said firefighters want to make a positive impact every time they respond to a call.
“And for the fire department to do that, we felt we needed to be better, if not more, representative of the community than the community is. We want to be diverse, have multiple backgrounds that we can pull off from so we can be our best in our time of need.”
“You see it, you can be on it”
Nationally, only about 4 percent of firefighters are women. People of color make up only about 15 percent of the ranks of firefighters.
In Minnesota, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have departments more diverse than those national averages.
In Minneapolis, approximately 32 percent of the department is made up of people of color. It’s about 26 percent in St. Paul.
But it required lawsuits to help reach them. A lawsuit filed in the 1970s resulted in the incorporation of what was at the time an all-white section of Minneapolis; A different lawsuit in the 1980s against the St. Paul Department resulted in more women being hired.
And after some initial recruiting boosts, the number of firefighters started to slow down again. Women now make up only seven percent of firefighters in St. Paul, and nine percent in Minneapolis.
To build a more diverse workforce, departments need to actively recruit, said Melanie Rucker, the assistant fire chief in Minneapolis.
Rucker said she was inspired to apply more than 20 years ago after she heard an advertisement on KMOJ Radio in Minneapolis.
“This was a predominantly white male profession,” she said. “So people of color don’t see, ‘You see, you can be.'” “And when you don’t see it, when you don’t realize this is an opportunity for you, you won’t apply for it.”
For Rucker, she said applying to work as a firefighter was the best decision she ever made.
Now, she said, people of color in the department are actively visiting local community groups to help inspire others.
“And I’ll go out, I’m an African American woman myself, and I want them to look at me and say, ‘Well, if she can do that, I can do that. “
Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul fire departments also have programs in which people in inner city neighborhoods are paid to receive emergency medical technician training, or EMT training, which can then become a stepping stone for a job in the department.
Having a staff that reflects the community they serve is essential to building trust, said Roy Mucuso, vice president of the St. Paul Fire Department. These people bring additional skill sets, he said.
“I only think of the calls I’ve been making where there is a native Hmong speaker, a Somali speaker, or a Spanish speaker,” Mukoso said, to connect with a community member trying to help him. “So, our delivery service is better because of the diversity of men and women in this department.”
Returning to Duluth, Clint Reeve and others hope that the fire department will soon be able to diversify its ranks. Several retirements and military deployments have opened about 20 new positions to be filled early in the new year.
President Sean Kreisage said it was too early to say who would be hired, but said at least one person from the new scholarship program had applied during the application process.
“It will be successful if we show people that there is a possibility to get a job and actually get a job here,” Krizag said. “Not just going to classes or school for two months, and then what?”
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