Why was there no sense of urgency for the Milwaukee Fire Department?

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

This should make every decent firefighter and fire officer sick to their stomach!

On February 13, 2020 in a Milwaukee (Wis.) fire station, a firefighter hung this figurine from a bulletin board where a female Milwaukee firefighter had recently been assigned. The figurine remained on the bulletin board for four days.

I first learned of this incident in an article by my FireRescue1 colleague, Laura French, Milwaukee FFs to be disciplined for figurine hanging at station, that posted on July 2, 2020. In that piece, French wrote: “According to the department’s release, an investigation was started immediately after the discovery of the figurine, and charges against multiple department members have been drawn up and will be finalized this week.”

But from my further research online it’s apparent to me that, while the fire chief said the racist incident had been under investigation for months, there was no action being taken MFD until after a story appeared on Milwaukee TV station, FOX6 News, on June 28, 2020.

The Milwaukee Fire Department said in its statement that its investigation did not reveal “a deliberate or intentional racist or sexist intent, nor an effort to target any individual member or group” but that the incident revealed a failure “to maintain and reinforce an environment and culture within which an occurrence such as this would instantly be questioned and stopped,” FOX6 News previously reported.

After the story broke and the incident became public knowledge, the fire department issued a press release on June 28, 2020:

MFD officials said an internal investigation began immediately, and upon being questioned, “the member responsible for bringing the figurine into the fire station and displaying it in the manner described self-identified.”

FOX6 News. MFD: Brown figurine hanging by looped ribbon found in Milwaukee fire station. July 2, 2020

The press release went on to say:

Officials said subsequent investigation led to the identification of “numerous” members of the department from the ranks of lieutenant, captain, battalion chief and deputy chief, “who were aware of or should have been aware of, the potential for the presence of this figurine displayed in this manner to create a workplace not conducive to a diverse, welcoming, safe and non-hostile environment.”

FOX6 News. MFD: Brown figurine hanging by looped ribbon found in Milwaukee fire station. July 2, 2020
Systemic racism affects every area of life in the US. From incarceration rates to predatory loans, and trying to solve these problems requires changes in major parts of our system. Here’s a closer look at what systemic racism is, and how we can solve it.

MFD officials said Sunday [June 28th] following the internal investigation, charges were drawn up “and are scheduled to be read this week.” Additionally, officials said “numerous members will have letters of reprimand placed in their files, memorializing their failure to maintain good order.”

“Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing promised Friday [July 3rd] that disciplinary action will come against department personnel who were involved in the placement of a black figurine hanging on a wall at a downtown fire station back in February.”—WTMJ Radio, July 7, 2020

Of course, the department’s investigation revealed nothing, as described below. When white people investigate instances of systemic racism, they’re never going to find anything because they’re part of the systemic racism.

A fire service colleague of mine, who’s a fire chief in Arizona, echoed my thoughts on this incident:

This occurred in February [2020] and last Sunday Milwaukee FD reported the incident via a press release. Nothing “intentional” was meant by this so therefore nothing was done to the perpetrator. There are so many issues with this incident and the department overall it is hard to know where to start. How about Milwaukee “Brotherhood” of Firefighters (Yes, there are women on the job in Milwaukee)? Let’s start there and work backwards.

Photo Source: https://tinyurl.com/yaa2lcoh

”At the direction of our civilian oversight body, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission, with whom we have been communicating throughout this process and to whom we will ultimately turn over all investigatory materials, the Milwaukee Fire Department will be undergoing department-wide anti-harassment training within the next few months.”– Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing from press release, June 28, 2020.

More from my Arizona colleague: We are well beyond “we need more training.” That is such BS. People need to be terminated and we need to hire people who give a crap about each other regardless of race or sex, plain and simple. I am so tired of the typical fire service excuses for racism and sexism.

Agreed, Chief! But wait, there’s more from the MFD press release:

Officials said subsequent investigation led to the identification of “numerous” members of the department from the ranks of lieutenant, captain, battalion chief and deputy chief, “who were aware of or should have been aware of, the potential for the presence of this figurine displayed in this manner to create a workplace not conducive to a diverse, welcoming, safe and non-hostile environment.”

MFD officials said Sunday following the internal investigation, charges were drawn up “and are scheduled to be read this week.” Additionally, officials said “numerous members will have letters of reprimand placed in their files, memorializing their failure to maintain good order.”

I don’t know where this particular incident will eventually lead but I’m taking a cue from Marshall Goldsmith when it comes to leadership: “What got you here, won’t get you there.”

When I received my first promotion to the rank of company officer, it was made truly clear to me by my organization, the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire and EMS Department, that as an officer the organization would expect more from me. And that expectation was reaffirmed with each subsequent promotion to captain and then to battalion chief.

If the Milwaukee Fire Department is sincerely interested in making significant changes in the organization to begin eradicating systemic racism it needs to do more than “numerous members will have letters of reprimand placed in their files.”

And a final word from my colleague:

I do not know this fire chief and do not care to. Heads should roll from the top down. Supposedly we are courageous because we run into burning buildings. I do not see any courage resonating from this story except from the woman firefighter who may have been targeted by this act. She has more courage walking in the firehouse every day then anyone she works with, and definitely more than the fire chief. Ridiculous.

Ridiculous indeed.

See Related: What Does Integrity Mean to You?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.