NORWALK, Conn. – There used to be reassuring faces looking back from Norwalk Fire Department trucks, according to one local man, who says he took it for granted that African American and Hispanic people were part of the emergency crews that went by when he was a child, some 30 years ago.
The man, who requested anonymity, had an idea for Black History Month: In this, the 100th year of the Norwalk Fire Department, take a look at its racial history, a history marked, he said, by progress some four decades ago followed by some troubling issues.
Sanford Anderson was the first to break the color line; in 1959 he became the department’s first black firefighter. Remarkably, he was also the department’s first black fire chief. Anderson was promoted to chief in 2004 at the age of 71, serving a year before retiring.
But things changed soon after that.
Mario Bologna, a 32-year veteran of the department who retired in 2011 as a lieutenant, says the hiring of African Americans didn’t begin in earnest until 1979, coincidentally the first year of his career. Of the 11 firefighters with whom he started the job, three were black, he said.
Bologna, who is white, said he feels a need to speak up for his black “brothers,” who he has “literally walked through fire with.” He says the number of black firefighters swelled during his career to 15 men, but has dwindled to six. He says that is due to racial discrimination.
Currently, a chart on the Norwalk city website lists 92 firefighters, 30 captains and lieutenants, five deputy chiefs, an assistant chief and chief. In addition, there is a fire marshal, a deputy fire marshal, four inspectors, an emergency management officer, an executive secretary, a secretary, a computer specialist, accounts clerk and three equipment maintenance personnel.
Firefighters still on the job won’t talk about the situation, Bologna said, because they fear retaliation.
“If a black person speaks out about a perceived injustice, aren’t they accused of playing the ‘race card?’” he asked in an email. “Very often it is excused as such. … Regardless of my color, I could not in good conscience sit by idly while any brother of mine is being disparaged.”
Another source agreed: There are only six black firefighters at present. There are only four Hispanic members, he said.
That is due to the disparate treatment in discipline of minorities, both men said, citing a series of ugly incidents that began in 2005. Bologna provided articles from The Hour to back up the claims.
Scot Wilson, a black firefighter, complained to McCarthy in August 2005 that he was being harassed and discriminated against, and said he had a videotape as proof. Wilson made the complaint during a disciplinary hearing; he had been suspended for allegedly reporting for a tour of duty while under the influence of alcohol.
Wilson later provided the video and a 13-page document to The Hour, saying his complaint had gotten no result.
McCarthy initially denied to reporter James Walker any knowledge of the videotape, according to The Hour story, but later said he had “decided not to watch it” because Wilson said he wasn’t going to file charges against anyone. McCarthy went on to issue a formal apology in the newspaper. He said the nature of the hearing had distracted him, which was a “grave error.” He promised that the department would “thoughtfully assess” the attitudes of department personnel and deal with the issues.
At a pre-diversity meeting held 22 days after the publishing of the apology, McCarthy referred to Wilson and another firefighter in a disparaging way, according to meeting minutes. The second firefighter had been terminated, the minutes say, but there was pressure to rehire him.
“He then asked how it would look, with the race issue going on, if the department did rehire him, even though the former black chief (Anderson) signed a letter to terminate said firefighter,” the minutes say. “He said the department would be getting rid of a drunk but taking back a thief. He asked if it was better to take back a resident thief or an out-of-town drunk?”
Bologna said McCarthy used a phrase he found offensive in 2008. Bologna said that, with 24 firefighters present, he drew McCarthy into a discussion about his sick day policy. McCarthy eventually said, “Color me black if you want to,” according to Bologna. An African American firefighter walked away at that point, rather than get into a confrontation that would cost him his job, Bologna said.
In 2009, five positions (in different departments) were defunded by the city of Norwalk. That included McCarthy’s administrative assistant, Monique Cipriano, who is black. Nine months later the position was refunded. A white woman was hired. Cipriano had been switched to the Department of Public Works.
Bologna thinks this is fishy; he points out that Cipriano wrote the minutes of the 2006 meeting.
Cipriano was not available for comment when this story was written.
McCarthy did not return an email asking for comment.
While there are currently six black firefighters in the department, both sources said, three of them are retiring soon. That will leave three, and they don’t expect any minorities to make the cut in the department’s current hiring spree. Bologna said that is because minority community members know McCarthy’s track record and aren’t applying.
NAACP President Darnell Crosland said he could not speak to that. He said he’s had complaints from firefighters about discriminatory treatment, but hadn’t heard anything about people shying away from the department. He agreed the history is bad.
“I do think there’s a huge problem,” he said. “It needs to be addressed.
He said he was optimistic. Mayor Richard Moccia sent him a “very pleasing email” about a month ago, he said, congratulating Crosland on his election in January to lead the local NAACP. “He would also love to sit down with me and talk about the very exciting about things to diversify the fire department.”
Neither Moccia nor McCarthy returned an email requesting information about that.