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."
The lack of accountability also extends to chief officers, Ricci said, noting that too often chief officers are wrapped up in the trivial, and are not paying attention to the job at hand.
"They spend so much time trying to keep their jobs, they forget to do it," Ricci said, noting that it's time for chiefs to "get off the back of the milk carton and show your faces" in the station. He said they should let the troops in the station know they care and are not playing politics with them.
"While it is critical for chiefs to understand politics, please understand that you are not a politician," Ricci said. Chiefs need to support their officers, back them up, make sure they have the right tools to do their jobs and "work with City Hall and sometimes fight them."
Chiefs also need to be held accountable on the grounds that they need to treat everyone equal. Chiefs must also hold their subordinates accountable too.
"The first horsemen, lack of accountability, will cause more deaths than any others if our chief officers continue to fall prey to the status quo," Ricci said.
The two middle horsemen, loss of faith and indifference, "always ride together," Ricci said.
Departments that open the door to the loss of faith and indifference, "they strike back at the very spirit of who we are," Ricci said, likening them to a cancer that eats at the passion of firefighters as well as the spirit.
"You've worked hard, you've sacrificed, only to find out that the light at the end of the tunnel was a freight train," Ricci said. "…When my department scuttled the promotional exam, we were all devastated."
But Ricci said he didn't let it break his spirit. To combat the negativity, Ricci said he was honored to accept the chief's invitation to teach the recruit class when others in his department were questioning why he would agree to that when the department had acted egregiously.
His rationale lies within the premise that City Hall and the mayor are likely not to care if you haven't cleaned your tools, or haven't trained sufficiently or the new recruit doesn't know anything about firefighting.
"Does anyone think the mayor would care if the new guy couldn't force a door or take a hydrant," Ricci said. "I told them all that at the end of the day, [the new guys] will be the ones crawling down that hot hall with us and our lives may depend on their actions."
The fourth Horseman, according to Ricci, is politics over merit.
"Almost all of our urban centers have been affected," Ricci said. "It has been aided by the 'Good Ole Boy' network, politics as usual as well as our own justice department.
In 52 B.C., the Chinese were the first to have civil service laws with the simple premise that "merit must trump all other considerations," he said. "You would think in those thousands of years, society would learn to keep politics out of it," Ricci said.
Given the rigors of the fire service and its complexities, decisions on hiring should not be political, he said, noting that the wrong decision can result in loss of personal property, injury and even death.
Rules need to be applied fairly and equally, he said.
"If politics, nepotism, cronyism, racism or discrimination sneaks in, then we owe it to each other to root it out," Ricci said. "…Does the color of one's skin, sex or heritage make someone a better firefighter," Ricci said. "Of course not."
Ricci said he does not think the public is thinking about, or cares, about the race of the firefighter. What the public wants is someone who can get there quickly, act professionally on the scene and be competent.
"Achievement is neither limited to, or determined by, one's race or politics, but it is determined by one's skills, dedication, commitment and character."
Ricci said firefighting jobs cannot be handed out without regard for merit or qualification.
"While equal opportunity must be guaranteed for all, it does not guarantee equal outcome," Ricci said. "The point is, merit matters."
The practice of dumbing down of exams is a form of bigotry, Ricci said, noting that statistics cannot be used to choose our leaders.
"No one deserves to retain a position under that cloud of suspicion," he said. "…Diversity cannot be achieved by handing out quotas and litigation, but by hard work, dedication and education."
Quoting Edward R. Murrow, Ricci said firefighters need to keep in mind that, "A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves."
"It is your choice to be the predator or the prey," Ricci said. "While our challenges will not have to be fought with blood, they will have to be fought with knowledge and political courage. Stand up and together we can take back the fire service."