The Orlando Fire Department’s new chief, Benjamin Barksdale, said he envisions a more inclusive culture at the agency, and wants to grow its use of technology while making strides to keep OFD employees healthy “both mentally and physically.”
Barksdale laid out his plan for leading the department at a swearing-in ceremony Monday, marking his official appointment as OFD’s 20th chief. He said his vision was “simple: We will continue to build on the 134-year foundation by having a department that is diverse and inclusive.”
Barksdale, who has logged more than 30 years in the fire service and previously was chief of the Prince George’s County Fire Department in Maryland, replaces former OFD Chief Roderick Williams. Williams resigned in February after the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission found he harassed and discriminated against a female assistant chief. The ex-chief has disputed the accusations and filed an EEOC complaint against the department, alleging racial discrimination, WESH-Channel 2 reported.
Barksdale was selected after a months-long nationwide search.
At the ceremony Monday, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer acknowledged it was a rarity for the city to bring on a chief from outside the agency, but praised Barksdale for a track record of hiring a diverse group of employees in his previous leadership roles, saying he had encouraged people "from all backgrounds to seek opportunities in fire service.”
Barksdale oversaw thousands of employees in his previous post, Dyer said, and advocated for access to mental health programs for firefighters.
“Typically, we don’t go outside of the department to build leadership positions, but Chief Barksdale’s experience demonstrates his ability to lead our team with integrity and professionalism,” Dyer said.
Dyer added he was “committed to providing development and training opportunities” for Barksdale to ease into the position.
Barksdale, who started in his new role Nov. 15, told reporters after the ceremony that increasing diversity at the department will likely be his biggest challenge. In his first two weeks on the job, he said he began visiting each station, surveying employees about their experience working for OFD. Many indicated inclusiveness is an issue, he said.
“From what I’ve heard thus far... change is absolutely wanted in the way things have been done here in the past,” Barksdale said.
Improving the culture at OFD will take “cooperation with everyone," he said.
Over the next five years, Barksdale said more opportunities for recruiting will become available when a spate of employees become eligible to retire and new fire stations are set to open. Following Williams’ resignation, the agency implemented new recruitment initiatives in an effort to boost diversity.
Barksdale said he plans to lead “a workforce that seeks to support, understand and meet the needs of the community and each other in a professional, non-judgmental manner.”
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