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Norwalk Fire Department’s number of minority members dwindling

Norwalk Fire House construction 011-20130205

Much progress has been made on Norwalk’s new fire house but some feel not enough progress has been made in the department’s race relations.

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.

9 comments

Original BARIN March 1, 2013 at 7:12 pm

Skeletons in the closet? Did someone say transparency?
In a city like Norwalk people talk to each other, may be there is some truth to the reason African Americans dont apply in Norwalk.
One way to find out is to ask them, if it’s true you really have a problem, there have been rumblings of this behavior going on for years.
Also if you live in Norwalk, there is no way possible you dont see the number of minorities dwindling on the Norwalk Fire Dept, no matter who you are.
As for using the race card, sometimes racism is so suttle only the victim sees it, then you get nowhere when you go to management.
In my opinion Mr. Bologna has done the residents of Norwalk a great service by speaking up, for 32 years he helped protect us and is still doing so in retirement.
Hopefully more people with knowledge of any shenanigans within the fire dept will step forward and stand up WITH Mr. Bologna.
In the year 2013 racism is alive and well in America as we all know, but we dont need to have that kind of crap going on here in OUR Norwalk.
I call on all elected/appointed officials, clergy as well as residents, to take a hard look at these accusations out in the open, sooner rather than later.

Original BARIN March 3, 2013 at 12:52 pm

@ Joe bag of nuts,
You nincompoop!! Is YOUR house painted white too Nuts?
Why are you hiding, I see, with such a racist comment it is probably better if you hide.
You wouldn’t want your fellow residents and neighbors to find out you are racist, I told you racism is alive and well in America, as well as in our diverse city.
Some post Nuts, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Mario B March 3, 2013 at 10:10 pm

First, a great big “thank you” to Nancy for the time and effort putting this piece together. BARIN your first comment was right on the money. Skeletons? There’s a few more aching to come out. With a little cooperation they will. Transparency? There is none in this administration. It’s widely believed arrogance, intimidation and threats are the way things are run. There’s lots of people with examples of “shenanigans” as you put it, but they fear becoming a target as stated in the piece. Calling on officials to take a hard look at these things is great, that’s what should be done out in the open as you say. They all have the information and do nothing with it. The question is why? Apathy? Fear? Selfishness?
It’s nice that Mayor Moccia sent Mr. Crosland a “pleasing email”. I got one of those too about a year ago telling me to keep an eye on the newspaper to see all the exciting things that were going to happen concerning diversifying the fire department. Still waiting. And BARIN, as far as JBOD, take the high road.

Ed Isaacs March 12, 2013 at 9:04 pm

So Mario B, so first, I am happy with your concerns about Norwalk FD. You worked here, but neve spent one tax dollar day living here during your career. I lived in Colonial Village for almost 20 years. Minority’s are not over looked or denied jobs. First you have to apply, then take the test and pass. We have got people on the department, some minorities. I’m proud to say I know them, and have worked with them, most I consider my good friends…more so then you. My own son didn’t get a high enough grade to make the list. So who’s fault is that…his, he’s white! A black man helped to raise my father, he’s buried next to my dad and I was named after him. I’ll show anyone the gravesite anytime they what to see it. Should we take less qualified people…I don’t think so.I’ve heard you may have a personal grudge with the Chief, talk to him about your issues. Give him a call and straigthen it out like a real man. Best regard’s, Ed Isaacs

Mario B March 13, 2013 at 10:50 pm

@Ed,
I’m not quite sure what you’re commenting on. It seems you’re angry with me for a reason I can’t quite put my finger on. I cannot for the life of me remember one adversarial word between the two of us in the past 34 years. In fact I believe we’ve always had cordial conversation and supported each other. The last time we spoke on Westport Ave we shook hands as you left and you said to me I was one of the good guys, so I’m confused. So to your points I’ll address the last one first.
I’ll assume you read Nancy’s original piece with my full name in it in several places. I’m not hiding from anyone.
Of spending tax dollars I’m assuming you mean I never resided in Norwalk. That’s true. That requirement was changed many years ago and it holds true today. The top 2 administrators in the Fire department and many other employees do not reside in Norwalk either but I don’t know what that has to do with the original piece.
Ed, you haven’t lived in Colonial Village in over 40 years, what’s the relevance?
The 4 fire chiefs preceding McCarthy, Seymour, Yost, Verda, and Anderson, recruited and supported minorities, an integral part of Norwalk’s community, into the fire department. McCarthy didn’t until it was brought to light. In fact it’s gone in the opposite direction. Ed I’m trying to rally for those you are calling your friends, for the same type of noble person who helped raise your dad and who you were named after, so why the anger? Shouldn’t you be standing up along side me?
To suggest I’m advocating a less qualified person over a higher qualified person is ludicrous, but to suggest someone is less qualified or not given the same consideration, or is treated unfairly or publicly disparaged by the head of a multi-million dollar municipal department because of their ethic background is offensive on many levels and it should be addressed. Do you agree or disagree?
Your comment piece sounded like you were in support of McCarthy, are you? I remember some years back you were one of McCarthy’s targets, certainly not without reason. I wonder what’s changed.
I’m wondering also if you would be supportive of the current chief, if that’s the case, if the disparaging remarks and disparate treatment he’s exhibited towards blacks were instead directed towards Asians, or Italians, or Jews. In my opinion it doesn’t matter what group it’s directed toward, it’s all wrong.
Anyone who has known me as long as you have knows I’m for what’s fair and what’s right and knows that I’ll speak up for that.
I’m sorry your son didn’t score high enough to make the cut. I wish him luck on the next exam. Regards, M.B.

Ed Isaacs March 14, 2013 at 1:43 pm

First your article contains many things that happened years ago, 2005? What’s the relevance to what’s happening today. You don’t think things have changed? You don’t think the Dept. is a better place now? Since you don’t say the name of the second firefighter…I won’t say the name of either one. So the first FF was given how many chances to redeem himself? Then came the race card, so even though he really had done wrong multiple time, he was discharged and rewarded with a package. And to that firefighter, I offered to speak on his behalf once, I’m sure he remembers that.

So the second FF had his issues I believe first suspended then brought back, had to redeem himself and did it again. He had a chance to be given a package, he fought and lost that. Again, I was effected by this as much or more so then anyone. In my opinion he was one of greatest guy’s I ever worked with, and I wish them both well. Hey, there was one more way before McCarthy’s era. All for drugs, how many times was he offered help, sent away, offered more help. It goes on and on. Who was the Chief back in 2001

Have the members were talking about asked to have their names tossed around again in the news? The Chief is the Chief, an administrator that my tax dollars are paying for. I ended my career a year early. Yes the Chief was on my case all the time. But I left because it was time for me to go. I could have stayed one more year. Absolutely no animosity

Colonial Village, yes I lived there more then forty years ago. I forgot, I was born and lived at 37 Lexington Ave., on the corner of Olean first. All this was to say before I started rambling, that I lived in diversified neighborhoods.

So I never meant to offend you, just curious what your intent is with this. Are current members of the dept. happy that your digging this up again? I feel along with a number of others that your comments make the entire department look bad. I am very proud of this Dept as I’m sure you are. This is not what they need now.

Mario B March 14, 2013 at 7:41 pm

@ Ed Isaacs

i think I understand your position now……hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

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NancyOnNorwwalk.com was conceived as the place to go for Norwalk residents to get the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city. NancyOnNorwalk does not intend to be a print newspaper online; rather, it exists to pull the curtain back and shine a spotlight on how Norwalk is run and what is happening regarding issues that have an impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks and safety. As an independent site, NancyOnNorwalk’s first and only allegiance is to the reader.

About Nancy

Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.