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.

TODAY, LLOYD AYERS SPEAKS OF MAKING CHANGES. There is a “consistency log,” kept by his office, in which punishments and infractions are recorded, to ensure similar penalties. “We’re moving toward releasing­ that in some way,” he says, as a means of combating the perception of racism within the fire department.

If he does so, it will be a big move—the kind of initiative that might vindicate him. Still, Ayers seems bent on keeping some of the department’s traditional dysfunction firmly in place. Consider the basics of how discipline is still meted out: In the police department, officers are given a rulebook listing infractions and associated punishments; firefighters receive a rulebook containing only the infractions, allowing the commissioner to assign whatever punishment he wants for anything. Ayers says he’s willing to formalize the link between offense and penalty, but only to a limited degree. “I think we need to retain the ability to judge things on a case-by-case basis,” he says.

The Nutter administration seems content with that. Chief of staff and deputy mayor for public safety Everett Gillison defends Ayers’s record. “He faces a lot of criticism because he is managing in such difficult times,” says Gillison, “with constant cuts, and no one getting the raises or shifts they expected.” He states unequivocally that the administration will “stand behind its fire commissioner as we go forward.”

But the real takeaway from conversations with Ayers, Gillison and others is a kind of defeatism—a sense that the racial tension in the Philadelphia Fire Department, white on black, black on white, is simply too ingrained to ever be conquered. That some level of racial distrust has always been, and thus shall always be.

“If we show them they’re wrong about discipline,” says Ayers, “the union will just find something else.”

“I’m not sure this dynamic will ever change,” says union trustee Mike Kane. “It’s always been like this.”

“When you talk about racial tension in the fire department,” says Gillison, “you’re talking about a situation that dates back to the beginning of this country’s history.” As if what happened in the 1700s should compel continued tension in 2012.

This backward-looking attitude is particularly troubling in light of the story of Jack Slivinski Jr.—discovered in the middle of the night lying dead on his bedroom carpet.­ A white firefighter who killed himself over the guilt he felt toward the black firefighter who died for him.

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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.