Inside the Philadelphia Fire Department: Did Racial Tension Contribute to One Fireman’s Suicide?

Jack Slivinski Jr.’s mysterious death is only the beginning of the saga.

IF ANYONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE to be a black man in the Philadelphia Fire Department, it’s Lloyd Ayers.

Ayers is 60 now and plans to retire in mid-2014, so his legacy is beginning to take shape. A short, heavyset man with a demeanor that runs from affable to curt in the course of two hour-long interviews, he grew up in North Philly, around 29th and Lehigh. He joined the fire department in the 1970s, when some firehouses were still restricting African-Americans­ to “blacks-only” silverware, plates and cots—a vestige of the department’s troubled racial history, dating back to riots in the 1800s. Ayers became one of the first African-American firefighters to advance into the department’s hierarchy.

He also had a connection to the Slivinskis: Ayers was among those who dug through rubble to free Jack Sr. after he became trapped in the basement of a collapsed­ house in the early 1980s. But respect earned fighting blazes wasn’t enough to quell the racism that still infected the department.

After more than a decade on the job, Ayers made lieutenant. The day the promotions list came out, in December of 1985, Ayers arrived at Fire Engine 2 in Kensington to find an oddly decorated Christmas tree. The treetop wasn’t marked by an angel or a star, but by a stuffed monkey. “Hey, Lloyd,” a couple of white firefighters razzed him. “That’s you up there.”

The message was clear: You may be a lieutenant by rank, but you’ll always be a monkey to us.

Later, when he was a battalion chief, a white firefighter spat into his hat.

Ayers joined the Valiants early in his career, ultimately ascending to president. Roughly 20 years later, racial tension still runs high. In 2009, the Valiants filed a suit with the city and Local 22 over racist postings that had been allowed to stand on the union’s message boards. One claimed black firefighters lacked the intelligence to use a flashlight; another suggested they occupied a lower rung than whites on the evolutionary scale. The Valiants eventually settled with both the city and the union.

What’s changed is that the accusations now also run in the other direction—from white firefighters to their black departmental superiors. As commissioner, Ayers has appointed former Valiants officers like Ernest Hargett, Willie Williams and the recently deceased Daniel Williams as high-ranking members of his administration. His predecessor, Harold Hairston, who is also black, says this cast was sure to escalate racial tension. “I think they were wide open to at least the perception of racism and favoritism,” he says, “just given their history as members of a race-based group.”

Hairston himself once received a vote of “no confidence” from the Valiants, an odd blow for the first African-American commissioner in the department’s history. And the question now is if the Ayers administration is running the department with both obvious goals—suppressing fires, fetching care to the sick—and personal ones. Namely, pleasing the hard-core Valiants.

According to a recent report produced by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, 87 percent of the department’s white firefighters believe that disciplinary decisions are biased by race; less than 30 percent of all firefighters think that hiring and promotions are done “without regard to race or ethnic background.” It’s an allegation Ayers categorically rejects. “It’s personally insulting,” he says. “Given my history, I know, better than anyone, how important it is to handle our business in a racially sensitive and unbiased way.”

Numerous stories of unfair race-based treatment circulate through the city’s engine houses. There is the story about African-American Cory Nuble, who complained that a pair of black lieutenants harassed him for being too friendly with white firefighters. There is the story of Troy Gore, an African-American fire captain and Valiants officer who inquired, in an email, if there was some way for minority candidates to circumvent application deadlines. Gore received a 30-day suspension, then got promoted directly thereafter. And then there’s the one about the African-American lieutenant who brought in a broken cable box from home, swapped it out with a working box at the station, then called Comcast to fix the “station’s” cable box. (Comcast discovered the deception.) The lieutenant had committed a theft, but no formal punishment resulted.

These are the sorts of stories that found their way to the ear of Jack Slivinski Jr., convincing him—and evidently 87 percent of the city’s white firefighters—that the racial politics of the Philadelphia Fire Department were all-consuming. And Jack thought they might one day consume him. “Me and Jack actually talked about it,” says one African-American firefighter. “Both of us thought all the racial stuff just added needless stress.”

Ayers says he decides on discipline in any given situation based on a bare recitation of the facts—no names, no genders, no races included. “None of that plays a role,” he says. But this is, in many respects, a story about perception—a story about the destruction racism can inflict if it’s not confronted in every aspect: both in its actuality, and in its mere appearance.

Firefighters aren’t allowed to be interviewed by the media without departmental approval. So in order to provide open, honest responses, the city firefighters I spoke to requested anonymity. Further, the fire department’s union, Local 22, declined to give the names of members involved in specific cases because of its own responsibility to defend all of its members. But within these restrictions, here are some examples of what Philadelphia magazine found:

 

  • An African-American captain, attending a function requiring the full dress uniform known as “Class A” attire, received a 10-hour suspension for failure to comply with this directive. Compare that to the case of a white paramedic, who committed a similar uniform infraction and received a 40-hour suspension.
  • An African-American captain allowed an unqualified employee to act as tillerman, controlling the back wheels of the fire trailer. This offense netted a 10-hour suspension. A white fireman got a 48-hour suspension for the same infraction.
  • The fire department has a “zero tolerance” policy for intersection accidents, which it calls “preventable,” and which draw discipline for both a driver and his supervisor. So firehouses are alight with conjecture about the white firefighter who received a demotion for an intersection accident that two civilian eyewitnesses claimed wasn’t his fault. However, an African-American lieutenant deemed to be at fault for a near-miss received only a 20-hour suspension. In another instance, a black fire captain and his white driver admitted in a department accident report that they didn’t come to a complete stop before sliding through an intersection and striking a police vehicle; neither was suspended. The captain was soon promoted to battalion chief.

There are scores of similar stories. Ayers addresses them all in a bunch, saying that “the whole context” of any given case must be understood to appreciate his decision-making.­ (He also couldn’t discuss specific cases, because the same privacy laws that keep the union from naming names restrict him.)

But the most dramatic examples revolve around deputy fire chief Rob Wilkins. Long rumored to be among Mayor Nutter’s potential picks to succeed Ayers, Wilkins was charged in the fall of 2011 with assaulting his wife. The fire department found that he failed to report his arrest, contrary to department regulations. Wilkins, an African-­American and a former Valiants board member, received a 48-hour suspension­. (Ayers confirms this.) In March, Wilkins reached an agreement with the Bucks County D.A., pleading guilty to summary offenses of harassment and disorderly conduct.

Compare that level of punishment to white firefighters who committed seemingly lesser offenses, such as one who hollered “That’s bullshit. It won’t work” at a training session for a new piece of equipment. He received an 80-hour suspension—nearly twice what Wilkins got for failure to report his own arrest. The white fireman was also forced to undergo anger management classes. Or consider the case of Mike Bresnan, a lieutenant and the president of CAFFA, accused of posting a comment critical of Ayers on philly.com. Ayers demoted Bresnan. Bresnan later got his post back in arbitration.

Philadelphia magazine also obtained a memo, written by AFSCME Local 2187 union president Kahim Boles, complaining to Ayers that Wilkins had to be restrained from assaulting one of his employees at a January 2010 meeting. The memo accuses Wilkins of yelling profanities and threatening to go to the home of union official David Mora to assault him. (Philadelphia confirmed the accuracy of the memo with both Mora and Enrique Bravo, an Information Systems staffer who attended the meeting.) Wilkins received no punishment from Ayers, who says that after investigating, he felt that “whatever happened didn’t rise to the level where punishment was necessary.”

Problem is, Ayers is reaching a point where distrust of his administration creates its own momentum. “At the end of the day, whether the allegations are true almost doesn’t matter,” says City Councilman Jim Kenney, a longtime champion of the fire department. “This is a management problem. You just can’t allow a department where 75 percent feel the process is biased to go on that way.”

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  • Brad

    Does it not raise any eyebrows that Commissioner Ayers has been a lightning rod of controversay since the day he joined the fire department? Where’s Joe Rizzo when you need him.

  • Benjamen

    Well written and balanced article.

  • Liz

    It’s very sad that Jack didn’t get treatment for the very obvious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he was suffering after the fire. The Philly Fire Dept. should be answering tough questions about mental health care as well as calendars. Also, I’d be interested to know when the antidepressant use began relative to the suicide. Initial use can cause suicidality. Finally, alcohol is a depressant, and was probably a piece of the puzzle. There were enough psychological and psychiatric issues here to account for the suicide, even without the calendar dustup. So sad.

  • victor

    Now that African-Americans are in power and the majority in places such as Philadelphia, it is also time that the African-American community must recognize that they are in the position of the oppressor, not the oppressed. Racism is institutional, and they are at the helm of institutions. They must learn to tread as carefully, and err on the side of being generous, just as whites in positions of power have learned, or been compelled, to do.

  • Susan

    How can the Mayor allow the Ayers to hand out punishment without developing a proper and fair guidebook that the police follow. This is wrong. If just this one thing was done, it would have a huge impact.