By Barney Blakeney
When Charleston’s new fire chief, Daniel Curia, takes office July 30 Mayor John Tecklenburg says he will take over one of the nation’s most elite fire fighting forces. That elite force exists in a city defined by African American culture, a city until two decades ago was predominantly Black. But today, only about seven percent, or 17 of the 302 fire fighters in the department Curia will head, are Black.
In a recent telephone interview Tecklenburg said his vision of the city is one of compassion, creativity and fairness; one where the arts, economic development and the state of our schools come together to form a level playing field that provides opportunities for all citizens.
Last week Tecklenburg’s spokesman John O’Toole added, “As Chief Curia made clear throughout the public interview process, diversity will be one of his top priorities as Charleston’s new fire chief. That’s a critical goal for our city, and the mayor is looking forward to making real progress on the issue in the days ahead.”
But achieving greater racial diversity in the fire department may be more difficult than recognizing the need. When former fire Chief Karen Brack was hired in 2012 some 40 of the department’s 300 fire fighters were Black.
Charleston City Councilman James Lewis said the lack of racial diversity in the fire department is blatantly obvious, but the consistent decline in the number of Black fire fighters went almost unaddressed during Brack’s tenure. “In recent years we just haven’t hired many Black firemen. I don’t know why. That should always be a priority,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ colleague, Councilman Mike Seekings also expressed concern about racial demographics in the fire department. And though declining numbers of Blacks in the fire service is not unique to Charleston, the new chief will be charged with fixing the problem he said.
He added the same challenge faces newly appointed Montgomery County Police Department Assist. Chief Luther Reynolds as Charleston’s new police chief. About 20 percent of the police department’s sworn officers are Black.
If there is a bright spot in the racial demographics of the city’s fire department, it’s the command staff. Among the command staff 84 percent of officers are white, 11 percent are African American and five percent are Latino.