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Investigation into Kansas City Fire Department says unions block needed reform on racism

Esther Honig
A report released this week detailed persistent issues with racism and sexism in Kansas City's fire department.

After a news report revealed persistent issues with racist and sexist harassment at the Kansas City Fire Department, the city ordered an investigation into department conditions. It found problems persist, enabled in part by unions slowing efforts at reform.

A new report on the culture within the Kansas City Fire Department finds that its two unions wield too much power, making it difficult for the department to work with the city.

The report analyzed workplace culture within the department, namely “the struggle to achieve a balance between moral courage and social capital in KCFD.” According to the report, those qualities have been imbalanced for decades.

The report says the two International Association of Fire Fighters unions run the KCFD.

The city ordered the report following a 2020 investigation by the Kansas City Star that detailed how Black firefighters and women experienced discrimination within the department. In 2021, a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership Work Group was formed.

Third-party consultant Debra J. Jarvis Associations Consulting & Training LLC produced the 163-page report, which took about a year. More than 200 KCFD employees were interviewed for the report.

Interim Fire Chief Ross Grundyson said in a statement that the department will continue to address accountability, equity, safety and inclusion. Grundyson said the department formed three diversity, equity and inclusion work groups to engage with community partners and improve the department’s community relations and cultural competence.

“The self-assessment of the KCFD culture and the selection of a consulting firm to assist with the strategic planning process are key steps in identifying areas for improvement and developing a comprehensive plan for creating a more inclusive and equitable workplace,” Grundyson said.

The report blames KCFD’s two unions for preventing KCFD management from holding employees accountable because of their power over daily operations and Kansas City politics.

“They seem to enjoy the benefits of favorable policies and practices codified in their (collective bargaining agreements), but do not share the responsibilities for managing and maintaining a safe, harassment-free, equitable workplace,” the reports states. “This also has an impact on effectively stewarding taxpayer dollars.”

The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 42 represents 1,113 KCFD personnel, which includes Fire Captains, in-line personnel and first-line supervisors. The IAFF 3808 represents 73 Battalion Chiefs and Division Chiefs. There are 1,240 KCFD employees.

The IAFF Local 42 did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.

The KCFD is jointly overseen by the unions and management. According to the report, KCFD members have felt ostracized or ridiculed when they did not support union positions or when they tried to talk about unsafe practices or harassment related to race or gender. Employees also felt that the unions prioritized firefighters over others, like dispatchers and those working in technical services.

The report also outlined instances of discrimination and harassment based on race, sexual orientation and gender. It found women feared that they would be ostracized if they file harassment charges, and some KCPD employees even refuse to work with a woman. Some KCFD facilities do not have separate women’s locker rooms and showers. Employees who are LGBTQ+ said they did not feel comfortable talking about their families at work.

Employees of color at the KCFD said they believe they have to conform to standards of whiteness. Black men are afraid to speak out, for fear of being labeled an “angry Black man.”

KCFD employees said the union and its structures prevent supervisors from holding people accountable and can end up protecting bad employees. They also said inappropriate jokes and slurs about race, gender and sexual orientation are commonplace in fire stations.

The report also says that employees pointed out unequal treatment of Kansas City residents, with homes in lower-income neighborhoods not treated with the same care as homes in higher-income neighborhoods.

The report recommends that KCFD develop a code of ethics, and that the unions should be involved in changing the culture of the department. Other recommendations to improve the KCFD include creating a separate KCFD recruitment department, hiring more single role EMS personnel to increase gender diversity and doing more active recruiting in school districts.

Kansas City’s Chief Equity Officer LaDonna McCullough reviewed the KCFD report. McCullough said City leadership will look further into the discrimination claims included in the report.

“The City seeks to be intentional in its exercise of due diligence and takes all claims of discrimination, harassment, and workplace violence seriously,” McCullough said in a statement.

As KCUR’s Missouri politics and government reporter, it’s my job to show how government touches every aspect of our lives. I break down political jargon so people can easily understand policies and how it affects them. My work is people-forward and centered on civic engagement and democracy. I hold political leaders and public officials accountable for the decisions they make and their impact on our communities. Follow me on Twitter @celisa_mia or email me at celisa@kcur.org.
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