The Duluth Fire Department has a problem.
Out of 135 staff, its ranks contain just seven women, two African Americans and a handful of Indigenous people and other underrepresented groups.
That’s why International Association of Fire Fighters Local 101 is about to launch a scholarship program offering women and minorities a potential path into the profession.
“As a union, we got together and decided it’s time to put words into action, and we founded a scholarship to diversify our membership,” said Adam Casillas, unit president.
The scholarship program has been named in honor of Ernest L. Butler and Pamela Wutz, respectively the first African American and the first woman to be hired by the fire department.
Wutz took the firefighter exam right after graduating from high school but said it took many years for her to actually land a job with the fire department.
When presented with the opportunity to seek a vocational degree in firefighting, Wutz leapt at the chance, recalling: “I worked all nights at Diamond Tool, so I could go to classes during the day.”
Her persistence paid off in 1987.
Early on, there were no locker rooms for women firefighters in Duluth fire halls. Wutz recalls having to change her clothes in the station office and use the administrative office restroom. There also was no place for a woman to reliably shower away from the eyes of her colleagues.
Those conditions certainly have improved, but accommodations for women firefighters remain relatively cramped and modest — a situation that Casillas said could improve if more women join the force.
“Things have changed, and they haven’t changed. There are women in our fire department, but we can’t seem to draw more minorities into the field, and it’s a great field to be in,” said Wutz, who retired in 2007, after a 20-year career as a Duluth firefighter.
Unfortunately, the city has struggled to attract people of color, as well.
Casillas pointed out that the city has made little headway since Ernest Butler Jr. became the first Black person to join the Duluth Fire Department in 1972. Shortly before he retired in 1998, Clint Reff was hired, and while he has risen to the rank of assistant fire chief, just one other African American firefighter has been hired in recent years. Consequently, as Reff nears retirement, the city’s fire department could once again be left with only one Black member.
Casillas finds that relative lack of progress since the 1970s disappointing and said it prompted local firefighters to put up their own money, in the form of union dues.
“We hear constantly that they (city administration members) care about diversity. But unfortunately we’re not seeing it. It takes money to make these changes. So, we said: Enough is enough. Let’s make this happen. We want to see more women. We want to make sure the women who are leaving get replaced. We want to see more diversity,” he said.
Local 101 has set aside $6,400 to cover the cost of obtaining the necessary certificates for employment as a firefighter at Lake Superior College, as well as the exam fee. Those funds should be sufficient to usher four people into the profession, and the necessary classes are offered at night and on weekends.
The deadline to apply — Friday, July 2 — is closing in, and the form is available at tinyurl.com/e37xzf4. Casillas described the application as simple and quick and said the selection committee will be looking for candidates with a drive to learn and serve their community.
Janet Kennedy, Duluth’s first elected Black city councilor, said many people of color don’t personally know of people like them working in certain fields. “So, I think it’s a really great idea in a lot of the conversations that we have to talk about how we can be more inclusive. And I applaud our firefighters.”
Duluth City Council President Renee Van Nett heaped praise on the firefighter-led effort, as well, saying: “They know their needs like nobody else does, and they know what we’re missing. They’re not afraid to just come out and say it and do something about it. So, I totally appreciate that.”
At local firefighters’ request, Van Nett said she agreed to share the link to the scholarship application widely with fellow members of the Indigenous community.
“But I think the thing that’s often difficult, at least for Native communities, is to believe that we can actually do that,” said Van Nett, describing the challenge of convincing previously overlooked populations that more opportunities await them than they might have believed.
If the Duluth Fire Department can bring people with more diverse backgrounds into firefighting, Casillas hopes more women and people of color will recognize that there are opportunities for them to pursue a similar career path.
Wutz said greater diversity can improve the effectiveness of the department, as well.
“With public safety, every call that you go to is different,” she said. “You deal with different diverse communities and situations. You deal with deaths in the family and stuff like that, and everyone brings something different to the table.
“That’s huge,” Casillas said. “You can’t train someone to have a certain cultural background. I can make you good at pulling hose. I can train you on ropes. I can train you on hook and ladder. But I can’t make you someone who has a history of being driven, of being told they can’t do something and still overcoming all of that, and then showing up on the scene and understanding what another family is kind of going through.”