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Orlando FD reveals plan to boost diversity, internal investigations in wake of controversies


Tess Sheets
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — The team devising a plan to boost diversity at the Orlando Fire Department is recommending changes to recruitment and the way OFD handles internal investigations, as the agency emerges from the sexual harassment scandal that prompted its former chief’s resignation last year.

The Inclusivity and Equity Action Plan, which was presented to city commissioners Monday by Mayor Buddy Dyer’s chief of staff, Heather Fagan, and the city’s public safety adviser, Dave Arnott, focused on plans for recruitment of women and minorities and transforming the agency’s professional standards.

The agency came under scrutiny for its lack of diversity following a series of incidents over the past year, beginning with the scandal involving former chief Roderick Williams.

Williams resigned a year ago after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined he and two deputy chiefs discriminated against and harassed a female employee.

Then, in May, an anonymous letter penned by seven current and former female OFD firefighters surfaced, claiming years of sexual harassment and abuse by Deputy Chief Ian Davis. In September, a white firefighter who was demoted in 2018 for calling another firefighters the N-word won his job back through arbitration.

Fagan said OFD currently recruits primarily from the existing pool of already certified firefighters, which generally lacks women.

The plan recommends focusing on outside recruitment, including by reaching out to college sports teams or the Teen Police and Fire Academy to identify young people who OFD can prime for a position in the coming years, when it expects a host of positions to open up.

The report also recommended adopting new testing to evaluate candidates’ social and professional skills. A pilot of the new test, which was used in 2019, showed more women and black and Hispanic men passed, compared with previous versions of the test.

As a long-term goal, the agency hopes to create a full-time recruitment office, similar to one at the Orlando Police Department, to focus solely on hiring efforts.

Fagan said meetings with OFD firefighters showed many welcomed a change, especially to the way internal issues were investigated and discipline was issued. A review of the agency’s policies showed roughly 60% hadn’t been signed by employees to indicate they read them, which the report said was due to inadequate enforcement when old policies were updated.

“This has led to complaints of inconsistencies in the enforcement of policy violation investigations and the associated discipline process,” the report said.

The plan calls for the creation of an Office of Professional Standards to review policy, investigate administrative issues and oversee training. The unit is listed as a long-term goal for the agency, but plans are in the works for the hiring of a civilian internal affairs office “with a dedicated OFD internal affairs investigator,” Arnott said.

Currently, complaints of a possible policy violations are sent to one of the agency’s deputy chiefs, who decides if an investigation is needed, Arnott said. Investigations are handled by the agency’s Arson and Bomb Squad, members of which are police and fire certified and are trained in internal investigations, Arnott said.

While the agency works to create a new professional standards office, the report calls for a temporary merging of OPD and OFD’s internal affairs sections. Complaints from OFD will go to a joint public safety manager, currently OPD’s internal affairs manager Dwain Rivers, who will decide if the complaint should be reviewed by the OFD investigator.

Arnott said the goal is to standardize the investigation process.

“What it does is it removes it from anybody else’s opinion and it sends it to an investigation,” Arnott said.

Complaints of sexual harassment will also be sent directly to Rivers.

The commissioners largely praised the initiative as being a progressive step toward changing the culture at OFD. Commissioners Patty Sheehan and Regina Hill, however, both voiced concern over the agency’s discipline appeal process, which Sheehan said returned some “outrageous decisions” in the past.

The city sued the firefighter’s union in December to have an arbitrator’s decision reversed after a firefighter who was fired for recording Hill without her permission in 2017 was given his job back. Sheehan and Hill asked whether policies could be put in place to ensure the qualifications of appeal arbitrators.

After the meeting Monday, Ron Glass, president of the union that represents OFD firefighters, said arbitrators are agreed upon by the union and the agency. The union, he said, doesn’t “get to hand pick who we think is a good arbitrator.”

OFD Chief Benjamin Barksdale, who took the helm of the agency last year, said he’s optimistic the department can implement the changes proposed in the report.

“While we know what we need, getting a diverse workforce is a challenge throughout the nation in the fire service,” he said. “While it may sound easy, it will be challenging.”

©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

This content was originally published here.

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