Charleston Fire Chief Karen Brack’s unexpected resignation last week took many by surprise and brings to the surface issues that all but subsided during her nearly five-year tenure. Brack was metropolitan Charleston area’s first female fire chief, but in the city where blacks historically comprised the majority of residents, the city has never had a black fire chief.
The most recent statistics on the percentage of blacks in the fire service were unavailable by press time, but in 2012 when Brack became chief, of the department’s approximately 300 firefighters only about 40 were black. Currently about 27 percent of the city’s population is black. Still, Brack’s closest contender for the job she won in 2012 was Henrico County, Virginia Fire Chief Edwin W. Smith who is Black. Several Charleston City Councilmen weighed in on the subject of hiring a black fire chief.
Councilman Perry Keith Waring said he is unaware of the current percentage of black firefighters in the department, but recruiting a new fire chief will not be based on any racial requirement.
“Any time you recruit for any organization, you try to get the best talent. African Americans certainly would be in that pool. The previous process was inclusive. African Americans were among the finalists in the search when Brack was hired. I’m sure this process will be inclusive as well. The day and time when African Americans are not included are over. The light of transparency ended that,” he said.
Brack proved herself more than capable in a male dominated environment, Waring said. She rattled some cages and improved the standards in a department that still suffered vestiges of cronyism and nepotism. “I don’t think we want to go back,” he said pointing to accomplishments that translated into savings for the city and its property owners. “We have to look for the best talent we can find. When we do that, we have to include some African Americans,” he added.
Councilman James Lewis echoed Waring. “We need somebody qualified, the best candidate. If black chiefs are interested in the job they’ll apply. They know we’ll be fair,” he said. But the four-term veteran councilman also offered, “We need more blacks on the command staff. Since the retirement of officers like Hazel Wine, Charlie Mack and Joe Ackerman the absence of diversity is obvious,” Lewis said.