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What Can Brown Do for You?

By Kathy Y. Wilson · December 1st, 2004 · Your Negro Tour Guide
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These aren't your vice mayor's black firefighters. They're not the lifesavers, unbeknownst to them, vengefully co-opted and "dispatched" in a threat leveled by Alicia Reece to settle and salve her wounds after I wrote "Get Back" (issue of April 18-24, 2002).

Reece said she knew some black firefighters who'd kick my ass. I've yet to run across those guys.

The ones I've met are like all the firefighters -- men and women -- I've ever rubbed up against: They're hard-working and humble. Almost demure.

Elton Britton, a black firefighter quick with a simile and a smile, startled me by helping me on with my coat at Sugar 'N Spice Sunday morning.

"My mother and aunts would not like it if they knew a woman was struggling with her coat and I was somewhere just standing around," Britton said, waiting for carry out with his three other crew members from the fire station at Reading and Paddock roads, where the edge of the black enclave of Paddock Hills sniffs at North Avondale's back door.

In the parking lot their engine stretched beneath anemic shade trees like a gigantic unwrapped toy under a Christmas tree.

Britton and I talked in line as more and more people pressed into the tiny diner. Ours was a chance meeting that serendipitously set me to thinking about the brownouts in the wake of last weekend's fatal fire.

"We're like insurance," Britton said of his compadres. "You hope you never need us, but when you do we're there."

Likewise, the larger fraternity of firefighters is angered and helpless by the politics of brownouts. Under a brownout -- a potentially dangerous, money-saving, city-mandated measure -- rotating companies at six firehouses citywide go temporarily out of service.

Some blacks claim that brownouts being mainly in poor and black neighborhoods says something about how city muthas and fathers devalue their poor brown people.

Therefore, a brownout by its very name sounds suspicious.

Brown. Out.

There's no overtime budget left, and the city tried getting firefighters in August to use three-man instead of four-man crews. The Cincinnati Firefighters Union sued, citing safety concerns. So it was back to the brownouts.

On a high-pressure weekend when most of us spent holiday money like it wasn't bill money, tripped off the tryptophan of another dead bird and watched football, brownouts crept through downtown, Oakley and the West End.

Avondale, mostly black and poor with its middle and upper classes comforted by the prefix and compass point "North," was also under a brownout Saturday when a suspicious fire started on Blair Avenue, trapping and killing a 45-year-old mentally ill man living in a group home.

The finger pointing began immediately.

Union Vice President Joe Arnold quickly and publicly blamed brownout geography for the victim's death, saying that Avondale's Ladder 32 was "just blocks away" and could've searched sooner for the trapped man "if they were in service."

Britton said brownouts pair firefighters with distant companies who might be unfamiliar with neighborhoods, hydrants and shortcuts. There could be an inexperienced ad hoc team fighting a fire during a brownout, Britton said.

"It's like a surgeon," he said. "When he goes into surgery he needs his nurse, his anesthesiologist, his whole team. And they may not be as experienced as some (we) may already know or have already worked with."

Acting Fire Chief Chris Corbett accused the union of "trying to scare the public."

The public should already be scared. Consider that winter brings with it an onslaught of dried-out Christmas trees and faulty wires and lights accounting for a hike in house fires. As do unattended candles and fireplaces once the eggnog's been spiked.

I stopped counting the ways I learned to write fire stories during my first winter a decade ago as a general assignment reporter at The Journal-News in Hamilton. I've described more charred Christmas trees, burned plastic toys and black-cloaked flames licking the night than I care to recall.

Those fires were faught without disparity or claims of slow response.

In Cincinnati, a nearly imperceptible domino effect is at play. But it's as plain as a Timothy Thomas memorial.

Rotating brownouts and the recurring Dickensian beg of the Cincinnati Public Schools District are but two fires smoldering at the feet of the city's Swiss cheese budget. And thanks to the spate of lawsuits -- settled and pending -- against the Cincinnati Police Department for charges ranging from excessive force and racial profiling to manslaughter, murder and kidnapping, city coffers are draining faster than I can type LaShaun Pettus-Brown.

We're broke, folks. But schools and fire and police departments are fundamental to the basic safety of a community.

"If you keep messing with these foundations, then society will erode," Britton said.

Still, as the firefighters union, the city and the fire department sort out brownout accountabilities, Britton said firefighters will keep, well, fighting fires.

"We're trying to stay strong and supportive of one another and of civilians," he said. "If we can't make you guys feel safe, then we're not doing our jobs."



Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.
 
 
 
 

 

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