‘When that trust is broken, what do we have?’: Former Sacramento firefighter alleges toxic workplace culture

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) – A former Sacramento firefighter says his departure after two years with the Sacramento Fire Department comes as a result of toxic workplace culture.

After playing Division 1 football at UC Davis, Desmond Lewis set his sights on fighting fires in his home town. It was a vision he turned into reality.

“This was the department I wanted to work for my whole career and felt really frustrated that it didn’t work out,” Lewis told FOX40.

About a year and a half into working with the Sacramento Fire Department, shortly after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis which led to social justice demonstrations nationwide, a dark cloud formed over his dream job.

“The protests are on TV and out loud, we’re at the dinner table, he goes, “Can’t these people stop protesting and go back to shooting each other?'” Lewis recalled.

He says a captain with the fire department made that comment, and to make matters worse, Desmond says no one in the room spoke up.

“I don’t think most people in the department are bad people or racist but I think they condone racism by not speaking up on incidents like that,” Lewis explained.

Lewis says this wasn’t the first time he experienced racism on the job, but being a young firefighter still in training, he didn’t want to fan the flames.

“I don’t want to rock the boat, I’m new. I don’t want to be that Black guy who plays the race card,” he said. “I’m trying to safeguard my reputation. I want to be someone they’re excited to work with.”

Lewis says multiple troubling remarks added up to a toxic workplace, one he no longer felt safe to work in.

“We do a job that’s dangerous. I need to trust you in a tight spot and when that trust is broken, what do we have?” he said.

So in January 2021, he made the difficult decision to leave a job he loved.

Two months later, Lewis is opening up about his experience to spark change in the department made up of 590 firefighters, more than 70% of whom are white men.

A department spokesperson tells FOX40 Lewis’ experiences were cause for concern with the chief saying:

Our department sets clear expectations that workplace discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated. In partnership with the City’s Office of Diversity & Equity, we are committed to building a more representative, equitable and inclusive fire department.

Gary Loesch, Sacramento Fire Chief

The department says it is investigating the statements made by Lewis and is committed to providing a more diverse and inclusive workforce for its staff.

A spokesperson also says they have taken a number of steps to increase diversity. The full statement can be read below.

The Sacramento Fire Department takes its obligation to creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce very seriously. The firefighter that you reference in your correspondence provided an email to the department stating his intention to resign. A meeting was set between the firefighter and the Fire Chief so that the Chief could learn the details surrounding the firefighter’s experiences within the department. 

The experiences shared were cause for concern. The Chief requested the City’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer to investigate the statements shared by the employee. These investigations are ongoing.

All members of the Sacramento Fire Department are required to adhere to the regulations set forth by federal and state law that precludes discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in employment. These standards also reflect the department’s core values of fairness and accountability. Every instance of misconduct is thoroughly investigated, and the culpable personnel held accountable.

Several steps have been taken to increase diversity within the Sacramento Fire Department:

– Partnerships with local high schools and community colleges to bring awareness and information about fire service career paths

– Partnership with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity 

– Active participation in the City’s Race and Gender Equity Action Plan

– Advisory Committee for Equity and Diversity, tasked with developing a set of goals and initiatives to help the SFD recruit and retain a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce

– Firefighters Girls’ camp in 2018 to increase awareness of the underrepresentation of females in the fire service

– Two successful Youth Academies – sparking an interest in the profession with high school aged youth in the Sacramento area, in partnership with Solutions for At Risk Youth. Of those who enrolled in the program, an average 93% completed the program successfully

– Footsteps to Fire: outreach and collaboration with community groups, such as La Familia, Asian Resources Incorporated, and the Greater Sacramento Urban League to bring opportunities to young adults in underrepresented populations to gain valuable information, resources, and mentorship for future careers in the fire service

– Reoccurring social media outreach campaign “I Am Sacramento Fire” highlighting the diversity within the department in hopes of inspiring community members to join the fire service

Keith Wade, Public Information Officer

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