Fighting fire with fire

Twenty years after Sherrie Wilson became Dallas' first female firefighter, she discovered the department's hiring practices were discriminatory. When she tried to do something about it, she got burned.

Looking back, Sherrie Wilson thinks she can pinpoint the moment she knew something was wrong. It was mid-August 1998, barely a month after she started her new assignment as a recruiter for the Dallas Fire Department. Landing the position was a coup, elevating her two ranks to acting captain, which meant a 10 percent raise.

She saw it as a vote of confidence by the department, a reward of sorts for 20 years of solid service. Her career had begun with fanfare when Wilson passed the rigorous physical exam to become the city's first female firefighter in 1978. For 18 of those years, she worked in some of the toughest parts of town, riding ambulances and battling blazes, a job that involved more than its share of danger, good-natured fraternal ribbing, and outright harassment.

But none of it would prepare her for the hostility she experienced in her new assignment.

Sherrie Wilson has been on medical leave for several months after a stressful year of fighting a boss she believed was trying to undermine her.
Mark Graham
Sherrie Wilson has been on medical leave for several months after a stressful year of fighting a boss she believed was trying to undermine her.
It was big news -- in the Dallas Times Herald and elsewhere around the country -- when Sherrie (Clark) Wilson became Dallas' first female firefighter.
It was big news -- in the Dallas Times Herald and elsewhere around the country -- when Sherrie (Clark) Wilson became Dallas' first female firefighter.

Wilson had just come off two years of working in City Hall, first as a public information officer for the fire department, then as the city's acting public information officer. She was ready to get back to the department she loved and eager for a new challenge.

By all accounts hard-charging and strong-willed, Wilson quickly took up the task of helping select 30 applicants for a new rookie class set to begin in January. She says her supervisor, Curtis Pierre, manager of personnel, told her that one-third of the slots were to be filled by blacks, one-third by Hispanics. If possible, one-third of the class should be female, and any positions left over were to be filled by Anglo males.

Wilson wasn't sure what to make of this policy. It was laudable, she thought, as long as the department was hiring the best candidates available. But she discovered that the process it had set up made that difficult to achieve. The recruiting office had sorted applications into four separate files, according to race and gender. What's more, they were processing the hundreds of applications manually, a laborious and inefficient process.

"We were supposed to pick the best candidates, but searching through all those files by hand was a nightmare," Wilson says.

So for the first few weeks, Wilson set about creating a computer database. When she began, she discovered that the department didn't even know how many applicants it had. Although her fellow recruiter Billy Ingram had told her there was a backlog of about 250 applicants, Wilson discovered that there were 420, not counting the 70 she discarded because the applications were more than 2 years old.

In Wilson's database, applicants were ranked by how well they did on the civil service exam, followed by their reading and math scores, the number of college hours and subjects they took, grade point average, experience, personal history, and polygraph results. The database also listed the applicants' race and gender.

The database had been a point of contention with the office staff, who complained about being unfamiliar with the computer program. But Wilson suspected that something else was going on. Her suspicions were confirmed, she says, on the afternoon of August 14, 1998, when Pierre and Ingram walked into the computer room where she was sitting.

"Billy, can I trust you?" she recalls Pierre asking Ingram.

"Yes, why do you ask?" he replied.

"Sherrie, can I trust you?" Pierre then asked.

Taken aback, Wilson replied, "I am insulted that you would need to ask."

"I don't care if you are insulted or not -- can I trust you? Can I trust you?" he repeated angrily.

"You can trust me with anything regarding the Dallas Fire Department," Wilson replied.

Wilson didn't know what Pierre was getting at, and she could remember thinking, "'Shit, I'm in trouble and I don't know why.'"

Pierre would later explain that he was worried that Wilson could not be trusted to develop an unbiased process in her database's recruiting criteria. He was concerned because fire department personnel were scrutinized by "a multitude of people," and worried that "if the proverbial shit hit the fan," Wilson would go back to the fire station and he "would go home."

It is unclear exactly what Pierre was worried about, and the department would not let him talk to the Dallas Observer. Wilson says she has come to believe that Pierre was not concerned that her database was biased, but that it, in fact, would show that the department itself was biased against Anglo male job candidates.

Right after the "can I trust you" incident, Pierre stopped paying Wilson the additional salary she was due as an acting captain and for the days she was out of town on recruiting trips. He wrote a letter for her personnel file that claimed Wilson tried improperly to set policy within the department. He screamed at her, she says, for not following orders he never gave; he undermined her authority and gave the vacation time she requested to a lower-ranking officer.

Wilson filed several grievances against her supervisor -- for pulling out a knife in front of her on two occasions; for allegedly filing a false report against her; and for discriminating against her because of her gender and race. Pierre was black; Wilson was the only Anglo in the office.

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