Frank Ricci is making a name for himself in the fire service for lots of reasons, and that now includes a provocative keynote speech at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC).
Ricci, who is a lieutenant with the New Haven (Conn.) Fire Department, had previously made national headlines as the lead plaintiff in a lengthy lawsuit that he and 19 of his fellow firefighters filed against the city alleging they had been discriminated against. The so called "New Haven 20" sued because they said the city was wrong in throwing out a 2003 promotional test on the grounds that not enough minorities passed the test.
The suit made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where the firefighter prevailed last year on a 5 to 4 vote. Based on that finding, 14 of the original 20 were promoted in November, Ricci being among them, and reaching his rank of lieutenant.
In an impassioned and often angry and fiery 25-minute speech, Ricci cautioned that the fire service was being pursued by the equivalent of the Biblical Four Horsemen, signaling the end the fire service as it's traditionally known.
In his speech, "Political Courage: Are You the Predator or the Prey?" Ricci touched on the lawsuit, but focused more on what he views as the ills that beleaguer the fire service.
"They are at our door; you can look away, bury your head in the sand but they will remain," Ricci said. "Their names should not surprise you. Many of our members have given them aid and comfort [they are] lack of accountability; loss of faith; indifference; and one of most destructive, politics over merit."
Before Ricci launched into his sometimes vitriolic speech, Robert Halton, the education director for FDIC, introduced his keynote speaker for the day of the show, which runs this full week.
Halton said that Ricci had been a firefighter in Bethesda and Chevy Chase, Md., and once was a live-in intern with the Rockville, Md. Fire Department before heading to New Haven where the spotlight was shown on him and his fellow firefighters.
"The court ruled that no group could be adversely impacted to accommodate any other group," Halton said. "Briefly, you cannot discriminate to cure discrimination."
Taking the stage, Ricci announced that he was going to talk about political courage.
"We are losing the fire service," Ricci said. "…Some of the most critical components of our survival are dictated by politics and this includes our budget, leadership, staffing." He said all too often, firefighters have sufficient courage to go down the hot hall, but not fight City Hall, or combat politics in the fire hall.
"You still must do what you think is right," Ricci said. "It will be hard. You will feel alone and like a target, but in America, with hard work and persistence you can succeed."
At least that's what he grew up believing, he said, noting that's no longer the case as evidenced by the fact that New Haven tossed the promotion test for what was ultimately ruled invalid reasons.
"I grew up in a nation of possibilities where I was taught you must rise and fall based on your own merit," Ricci said. "Individual initiative would be rewarded and we would be judged fairly based on the rule of law and our commitment to our communities." But as his lawsuit pointed out, that's not always the case, Ricci said.
In describing the first of the Four Horseman, lack of accountability, Ricci said complacency has killed more firefighters than virtually anything else.
"Firefighting is a dangerous profession, Ricci said. "We all leave our families knowing one day we will get hurt… A large percentage of our injuries and deaths are not due to inherent risks, it's due to an unwillingness to take personal responsibility for our safety."