Tensions are running high within the Alexandria Fire Department, as racism, sexism and favoritism have resulted in “considerable suspicion, distrust, and loss of confidence in organizational processes, and leaders,” according to a 2020 report.
“Perceptions of racism, sexism, and favoritism undercut trust in department processes including assignment, resource distribution, discipline, and promotion,” notes the 2020 Organizational Assessment Report for the Alexandria Fire Department. “Women fight a conservative mindset that has not yet disappeared. Conflict and related conditions fester until they become serious.”
Fire Chief Corey Smedley says his staff are exhausted by COVID-19, and that he is working on addressing multiple issues. He said that race relations within the department remain a work in progress, and that he continually hears negative comments against AFD academy classes that are filled with women and minorities.
“I can tell you, based on my experience, I get sometimes a few people that treat me in a certain way that isn’t what I’ve seen my caucasian counterparts be treated,” Smedley told ALXnow. “Specifically my predecessor… When there are more women and minorities in the recruitment class, I get comments about how everybody isn’t cut out for this job… We need to improve our training practices and the philosophy of training.”
Last summer, results from the annual citywide employee engagement survey were mixed, with only about 25 percent of respondents (147 AFD employees) seeing the department as a great place to work and seeing career opportunities for advancement.
According to the report, “A few participants suggested race may have been a factor in promotions of some members, some perceive that there are members who believe that personnel trained by a minority instructor may not be as capable as those taught by white training.”
All of this comes while the department undergoes a reorganization. Just days after the city made a deal on collective bargaining, AFD announced that roughly two-thirds of AFD staff are being relocated around the city.
“The department has met a new low in moral and low level of trust in senior staff,” one AFD staffer wrote. “If senior staff does not engage its employees, seek input (and listen) from people who actually do the work, and so on, we will continue to plunge further into the lowest we have ever been. There are many talented people who work here and who care; that number is rapidly shrinking by the day.”
AFD staff said that a number of issues, including racism, sexism and pay plague the department.
“Blatant racism and sexism,” an AFD employee wrote. “Pay freeze, fools in charge. How dare you hide behind covid and the bodies of dead Americans as an excuse to not provide me with a raise. The rate of inflation is roughly 2 percent a year. So in reality I’m receiving less money because my purchasing power decreases. Data is a joke.”
The reorganization, among other things, calls for shifting more than a dozen members of the technical rescue team and its resources (including the HAZMAT team and Foam Unit for flammable liquid spills and fires) to the station at Potomac Yard from Fire Station 206 at 4609 Seminary Road in the West End.
Morale has never been lower, Josh Turner, president of the Alexandria Fire Fighters Inc. and International Association of Firefighters Local 2141, told ALXnow.
“I’ve never seen morale this low in the fire department in my 11 years here,” Turner said. “People are tired. I’ve got members that are overworked. Between COVID vaccination sites and just running the normal emergencies that we run, people are tired, and they feel like their leadership isn’t looking out for them.”
AFD Chief of Staff Chris Thompson was hired in February 2020. Thompson was a recruiter for AFD for six years before his promotion, and says that he has fought against an exclusive culture where women and minorities were held back from promotion. He said that he has recruited roughly half of the department, and has gotten a lot of feedback about recruiting “the wrong people.”
“I believe that with any change there is stress,” Thompson said. “The changes that we’re making are basically a reorganization. And that’s basically moving apparatus, changing where people might have to work, changes some of the responsibilities.”
Smedley said that staff are working on 14 initiatives outlined in the report, including developing an advisory committee with employees from various divisions; developing an administrative team; creating an EMS blueprint for promotion to higher ranks; revamping communications within the department and working with the City’s race and social equity officer to develop a Departmental Equity Core Team to train staff on race and equity issues.
“I embrace diverse thoughts and opinions,” Smedley said. “I encourage people to be courageous about their convictions and about their opinion and passion. But they have to be aligned with our values.”