Fighting fire with fire

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

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.

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.

The department found that Pierre had not, in fact, paid her properly and that she did not deserve the written reprimand, which was removed from her record. But it did not find that Pierre's actions were discriminatory. A department internal investigation determined that Wilson misconstrued the knife incidents. The department transferred Wilson to the training academy, a move that dropped her down a rank.

In the end, it was Wilson who went home. In August, she began experiencing chest pains and high blood pressure and took medical leave. She blames her condition on stress -- not just from her experiences in recruiting, but because the department did not do enough to support her. In October, days after the department learned that Wilson filed a discrimination claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Deputy Chief Robert Bailey, who is over personnel, told her that when she came back she would return as a driver engineer, the rank she held before she went to recruiting.

Wilson admits that when taken individually, many of the complaints she lodged against Pierre seem petty. But she is convinced that he set her up for failure because he wanted her out of the department. And it's only recently that she thinks she understands why. During her tenure, she complained to the head of the firefighters union and high-ranking officers that the recruiting process was biased and possibly illegal. What she has since learned has convinced her.

"The department wants to make it look like it was just a personality conflict," says Ray Reed, president of the Dallas Firefighters Association. "And part of it may well have been. But I think it went deeper than that. Sherrie wasn't willing to go along with what a lot of us perceived was wrong. She was put in a position where she wanted to recruit the right way, but that wasn't the policy at the time. That's what got her crossways."

The department was, in fact, hiring recruits according to a strict quota system. If recruiters could find only a certain number of qualified blacks and Hispanics to train, they could hire only an equivalent number of Anglos, even if there were openings available and enough qualified Anglo applicants to fill them. This was done for at least several years and led to a shortage of firefighters that has contributed to the $5 million to $6 million in overtime the city has paid firefighters in recent years to meet required staffing levels.

It is only in retrospect that Wilson realized why her database, which the personnel office has since destroyed, was so troubling to Curtis Pierre.

The Dallas Firefighters Association, which last spring won a multimillion-dollar promotion discrimination lawsuit against the city, had long suspected that the department's hiring practices were equally discriminatory -- maybe more so, Reed says. The union was considering filing suit against the city, he says, but it decided not to, because sometime last spring, shortly after Wilson left the recruiting office, the department suddenly changed the way it did its hiring. The classes were now up to full capacity, and two-thirds of the classes were Anglo males.

"For a long time, I believed it was just me being screwed," Wilson says. "Now I know that there were a lot of other people also being screwed. And the city was being screwed as well."

When asked why she wanted to be a firefighter, Wilson answers, partly in jest: "Because some man told me I couldn't."

Actually, Wilson never really wanted to become a firefighter. For as long as she could remember, she wanted to be a paramedic. The dream had been planted when she was a child in Duncanville. One Christmas, she and her family were driving to Central Texas to visit relatives. A horrible accident had snarled traffic, and as Wilson's family drove past the bloody bodies, she prayed that someone would rescue them.

Then, as if in a movie, she saw her grandfather rush to the scene. He was a mortician and, in those days, they often doubled as ambulance drivers. "I don't know whether he saved those people or not," Wilson recalls. "But in my mind he did. It was very dramatic."  

Wilson's dream grew stronger over the years. Between her first and second years at Mountain View College, where she had taken first aid, she worked for a professional ambulance service. She enjoyed the job, but by then the city had implemented the emergency medical system, which took life-threatening emergencies away from private ambulance companies and made them the responsibility of firefighters, who now were required to be paramedics.

One night at the ambulance company, people were sitting around the bunkhouse telling jokes and talking about what they wanted to be. Wilson said she wanted to be a paramedic and save lives. She was tired, she said, of what they all jokingly referred to as "catheter calls," transporting people from nursing homes to the hospital.

"You can't do that. You're a woman," one of her colleagues said. "You have to be a firefighter first, and women can't be firefighters." At sunup, when her shift ended, Wilson drove to City Hall and told the receptionist in personnel, "I want to be a firefighter." The woman told her that the department had had 60 women try, but that none could pass the grueling fitness and strength test. Wilson told her she was a Duncanville Pantherette -- the championship high school girls basketball team -- and could do just about anything physical.

But the fitness test proved too much for the 6-foot Wilson. She did well for most of the exam, which required her to carry a ladder over her head and place it against a house, reposition it while perched on the roof line, climb through a tunnel and come back down the ladder, run 75 feet with a hose shooting 75 pounds of water pressure, and carry a 100-pound dummy up and down four flights of stairs -- all in 305 seconds.

She couldn't lift the dummy very well and had to stop at each stair landing, which slowed her down. She couldn't beat the time limit. For the next month, she worked out daily, lifting 100-pound weights. She took the test a second time and passed, becoming the first female firefighter in the city's 95-year-old department.

In fall 1978, news of Wilson's historic achievement ran in newspapers from The Dallas Morning News and San Antonio Light to the Chicago Tribune. But along with the attention and kudos, Wilson fielded criticism and harassment.

Tucked inside a carefully tended brown leather scrapbook is an angry letter she received from a group calling itself Women United. It reads: "...It is a sin for you to be living with other people's husbands. It is a sin for you to be turning our firehouses into whorehouses."

Some of the firefighters also treated her with contempt. During rookie school, two fellow rookies exposed themselves to her. When she got to the fire station, one firefighter sought a transfer because his wife didn't like the idea of his working with a woman; another rebuffed her offer to help him clean the firefighting equipment.

But soon the rank and file accepted her, which sometimes meant subjecting her to rough treatment. In an initiation reserved for all new recruits at their first posts, fellow firefighters tied her to a tree and ran the sprinklers. When she finished her training as an emergency medical technician, her co-workers baptized her by stuffing her into the kitchen sink.

But Wilson could give as good as she got. One time, the firefighters on her shift gave her a mock award for her "conscientious efforts in the areas of screaming, off-shift brown-nosing, tear-shedding, party-giving, and pizza-cooking while tying up both phone lines for 24-hour periods." Wilson came back with her own awards -- she gave one firefighter hemorrhoid medicine for being a pain in the ass, another a pacifier for being a big baby.

"Being a female firefighter means I have more brothers, daddies, uncles, grandpas -- and assholes -- than a girl could ever want," Wilson says. "All in all, I think I've been overwhelmingly accepted."

Wilson distinguished herself as a paramedic and in 1987 was nominated for a Julius Schepps Civic Award, given to the fire department employee who served the community both on and off the job. The American Heart Association twice nominated her for the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians "EMT of the Year" award. In a nomination letter, Roy Ferrell, Wilson's partner on the ambulance for a number of years, described how Wilson, on her days off, would take toys and food to impoverished families she met on the job.

"Thirteen years ago the Dallas Fire Department was under a judgment to hire women," Ferrell wrote in the letter signed by six other firefighters. "We were afraid that we would end up with a 'token' female not worth the money paid her. Well, we ended up with Sherrie, and she is no token...I am proud to say she could fight fires or save lives by my side anytime."  

Her record was not spotless, however. She received several letters of counseling and reprimand for assorted infractions, including damaging an ambulance while backing it up, failing to tell her superiors she was pregnant as early as they thought she should, and charging a long-distance call to a station phone. None of the infractions was serious enough to prevent her from being promoted and getting good assignments.

After 10 years working on ambulances, she was assigned to drive a deputy chief. It is a technical and demanding job requiring her to know the whereabouts at all times of every firefighter at a fire and track their positions on a status board.

"You have to know your business," says one chief, who asked to remain anonymous. "And she did it extremely well."

In the mid-1990s, Wilson was looking for a change. For a year and a half, she served as the department's public information officer, where she trained 1,500 city workers in the city's new 3-1-1 non-emergency city-service system. Impressed with Wilson's performance, First Assistant City Manager Mary Suhm tapped her to be the city's acting public information officer. After a year in that position, she was eager to get back to the fire department.

"It was in my blood," she says. "Once a firefighter, always a firefighter."

Wilson was looking forward to becoming a recruiter. Jumping two ranks was certainly attractive, but so was the chance to do her part in ensuring the quality of the department.

But Wilson did not realize that the personnel office was not an easy place to be. Twice in the last decade the city council, under increasing pressure to rectify past inequities, had issued mandates requiring all city departments to increase the number of minorities in their ranks.

The council passed an affirmative action hiring plan in 1988, which it renewed in 1993. But this time, the council issued an additional plan specifically for police and fire department personnel to "address the concerns regarding the level of progress being made diversifying" the two departments, according to the city council resolution.

The affirmative action plan for the police and fire departments stated that "to the extent qualified candidates are available, recruit classes will reflect one-third non-minority, one-third African-American, and one-third Hispanic." In addition, one-third of the recruiting classes, the plan stated, should be female.

Almost immediately after that plan passed, the fire department began meeting those hiring goals almost exactly (except when it came to women) and consistently did so for the next four years. That led firefighters such as Reed to charge that the department was adhering to a strict quota system and discriminating against qualified Anglo candidates. Reed knows this is true from personal experience. Several years ago, his son tried to get hired by the Dallas Fire Department. Though he had a perfect score on his civil service exam, he didn't make the cut.

Hiring goals become illegal quotas when they discriminate, explains Ken Molberg, a Dallas attorney specializing in discrimination cases. "It sounds to me like the fire department has stepped over the line. If you're forming the bottom line for the numbers of hires on the basis of race and cutting your classes as a result, you have stepped over the line. If you are eliminating presumptively qualified whites because there aren't enough blacks and Hispanics, than that's discrimination. And that's also a serious deficiency in recruiting.

"In all probability this is a violation of federal law," Molberg adds. "It violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It seems pretty clear, at least to me, that the council didn't intend to create a hard-and-fast quota system, but that in administrating it became one."

Assistant Chief Robert Bailey says otherwise. "There are no quotas. They are goals. But people call them quotas all the time."

In any case, the department's minority hiring record began to improve under the plan between 1994 and 1999. In 1994, 28 percent of the fire and rescue officers were black and 10 percent were Hispanic. By 1999, 33 percent were black and 16 percent were Hispanic.

The department may have been meeting its hiring goals, but the total number of rookies it was training was dropping significantly. In 1995, the department hired 48 new recruits. The next year the number dropped to 25, and there were just 12 recruits in 1997. According to information contained on city budgets for those same years, there were funds available to train up to 60 recruits annually. In fact, the funds for an entire class "disappeared," according to a 1998-'99 budget notation, because there weren't enough recruits to utilize the money.  

The reason the rookie classes were so low, Reed and other firefighters contend, is that the personnel department refused to fill the extra slots with qualified Anglo candidates because it would have thrown the quotas out of balance. Several high-ranking fire department officials who spoke off the record say that ultimately the blame lay with former City Manager John Ware, who was responsible for carrying out the city's affirmative action plan and refused to allow the fire department to budge from the strict hiring goals.

This finally stopped sometime last year, Reed says, after Ware and City Attorney Sam Lindsay had left their positions. "The city attorney's office and the new City Manager Ted Benavides met with our administration and told them they could no longer do it."

Reed believes Wilson helped bring the department's practices to the administration's attention. One person she complained to is Assistant Chief Larry Anderson, who became head of training late last fall. When Anderson learned he might not get all the recruits he was budgeted for, he raised hell, according to several sources. Suddenly the class sizes started to increase.

Not only was the policy illegal, it mbut ay have also been costing taxpayers money. In the last few years, the department has spent $5 million to $6 million annually on overtime to make sure staffing doesn't fall below authorized strength. Some of this happened by design, as the department scheduled overtime to increase staffing at stations and fill in for vacationing or sick firefighters. "Hiring back," or paying overtime to firefighters to stay on duty after their shifts were finished, in many cases was more cost-effective than hiring new staff who might not always be needed. But over the last several years, such overtime has spiraled upward. Reed says that when the plan first went into effect, the department was hiring back an average of 14 firefighters a day. By last year that number had doubled.

Where the shortage of recruits hurts the most, says Tommy Taylor, a firefighters union representative, is among paramedics, who arguably have the most stressful jobs in the department. "We've been dealing with the issue of paramedic burn-out for years," Taylor says. "But it is getting worse, because there aren't enough new recruits coming into the system to relieve them."

Assistant Chief Bailey says the problem is a question of budgeting. "You can't staff up and pay overtime," he says. "If the city would give us a bunch of money to hire as many as we have vacancies, we could staff up. But we'll always be paying overtime."

Reed says the firefighters like the overtime pay, but concedes that some of the increase in overtime hours may have come about because the quotas prevented the department from staffing adequately. This year, according to Anderson, the department is planning to hire 74 new recruits to fill the slots created by attrition as well as 12 new full-time firefighter positions.

To Wilson, the scenario is simple. "We have a desperate shortage that's costing the taxpayers a bunch of money, and we had a shit-pot full of qualified white applicants we weren't allowed to hire."

When Wilson was first assigned to recruiting, she thought the way to fill the rookie classes was to increase the pool of qualified minority candidates. That idea got her in trouble too.

About two weeks after her boss Curtis Pierre asked whether he could trust the database she was compiling, she was headed to Fort Hood, an Army base near Killeen, on a recruiting trip. While at the city's civil service office picking up applications, she was introduced to the department's assistant director, who wanted to discuss ways to raise the fire department's number of applicants.

The civil service exam was an applicant's first hurdle. On a scale of one to nine, with one being the highest grade, the exam tests three areas -- potential firefighting and paramedical abilities and general capability. Only applicants who scored three or better on each portion of the test would be considered. Wilson was told that the pool of candidates, particularly minorities, would be much bigger if the department accepted applicants who scored a four on one of the three portions of the test, but whose total score still totaled nine or less.

"I thought her idea had merit," Wilson says. "We were in a tight spot. We needed to find 30 recruits for the fire and rescue officer class set to begin in January, and another 12 candidates for the fire-prevention, education, and inspection class."  

She didn't think there were enough qualified minority applicants to fill the classes and achieve the racial hiring goals. She mentioned the idea to the other recruiter in the office, Billy Ingram, but he ignored the suggestion, she says. She also discussed it with personnel administrator Wonder McCoy, who dismissed the suggestion and told Wilson that there had been problems in the past between the fire department and civil service.

"Everyone seemed to be telling me to shut up and go away, so I never said another word," Wilson says.

But a few days later, Pierre called Wilson into his office and shut the door. He handed her a letter of counseling, which he intended to put in her file. The letter accused Wilson of contacting the civil service assistant director in an effort to address fire department policy issues. He wrote that she had violated city rules governing unacceptable conduct and failure to follow written or verbal discussions. "This letter of offered as a means of insuring that through your unfamiliarity, you do not put the department in harm's way."

Wilson was flabbergasted. "Until then I had a pretty clean record, and I felt like he was going to try and destroy me. I felt that I had to protect myself." She did so by filing a complaint with Pierre's supervisor, Assistant Chief Bailey, that accused Pierre of making untruthful statements about her in the letter.

She also accused Pierre of intimidating her by pulling out a pocketknife during a discussion. Not long before Pierre wrote the letter about Wilson, the subject of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas came up in conversation between them. According to Wilson, Pierre pulled a 5-inch pocketknife out of his pants pocket, snapped it open, and said, "Don't be talking that way about my man."

A few weeks later, Pierre and Wilson were talking about candidates. In the middle of the conversation, he allegedly said: "I guess I am going to have to get my knife again."

While the department investigated Wilson's complaints, she continued working in the personnel office, but relations between her and her boss were strained, and she was forbidden from processing any black candidates.

As Wilson got close to filling the fire and rescue officers' class, she hit a troubling roadblock. She and Ingram had found 27 recruits who fit the racial hiring goals, but at the last minute two black candidates backed out. She was sitting on a pile of Anglo applicants, but Pierre wouldn't give her the go-ahead to fill the rest of the class with them. She complained to several people, including the union president and the mother of one of the Anglo candidates, who had worked in the department. Eventually Pierre relented, but she was suspicious that this practice might have been going on for a long time.

During September and October, the fire department investigated Wilson's complaints. It found that Pierre should not have written the letter of counseling against Wilson. The letter was removed, but Pierre was not disciplined. As for the alleged intimidation, Pierre and a witness said he did not pull out the knife in a threatening manner.

Wilson wasn't happy with the outcome, especially when things continued to get worse in the office. After Pierre received Wilson's complaint about the knife, he proceeded to pull it out again during a meeting with Wilson and Ingram. Pierre still had not reinstated her 10 percent raise, which she stopped receiving in mid-August, after Pierre confronted her about the database. When Ingram and Wilson both wanted Christmas and New Year's off, he gave Ingram Christmas and Wilson New Year's, although department rules should have given Wilson the vacation she wanted, because she had a higher rank and seniority.

But the last straw came in November 1998. An interview committee had rejected an applicant whom the personnel office had sent for an interview because an arson investigator on the committee suspected he might be an arsonist. The thought had crossed Wilson's mind when she was processing his application -- he had been to an awful lot of fires, even for a volunteer firefighter, she explained. But he met all the other criteria, and she thought it was going beyond her job description to keep him from the interview process.

Pierre screamed at Wilson for not screening the candidate better. Wilson had had enough and told Pierre she was tired of him being "such a jerk," she recalls. Then he told her he would be happy to write a letter for her to be transferred. She told him she wasn't interested in giving up her acting captain's pay (the 10 percent raise he had stopped giving her in mid-August) because he wanted to get rid of her.  

"It you want captain's pay, you have to start acting like a captain," he replied.

Wilson filed a grievance, claiming they had not properly investigated her prior claims and adding several more complaints. The department moved her to the training academy, which shares the same grounds as the personnel office, and reduced her pay level to that of acting lieutenant. On several occasions, Wilson felt Pierre was harassing her by standing outside the building for 15 and 30 minutes at a time watching her. When she complained to her supervisor, it stopped. Wilson and other training officers typically sit in on some of the classes the rookies attend. One of the classes Wilson sat in on in the spring was on sexual harassment. Ingram happened to walk into the class to speak to the instructor. A few minutes later, her supervisor pulled Wilson out of the class, because Pierre told him she was being disruptive. At her wit's end, Wilson told her supervisor she was thinking of filing a workman's compensation claim for stress.

During the grievance process, the department once again found that Pierre had not discriminated against her. She filed a complaint with the civil service board. Pierre changed his story three times in explaining why he didn't pay Wilson accurately. Although he had signed the form that gave her the additional pay for the first month she was on the job, he told the civil service commission that he thought she would get it automatically. He then said that when he had his staff change from five eight-hour days to four 12-hour days, he thought it would automatically trigger the extra pay. He also said it was just an innocent mistake.

(A few months later, in the course of doing an open-records request, Wilson discovered that Pierre had never missed paying Ingram his temporary-assignment pay when he served as acting captain in the months before she worked there. When Wilson returned to the department several months ago in an attempt, under the open-records act, to retrieve the database she had compiled, a black officer had replaced her as an acting captain. Taped to his computer was a note written by Pierre: "Glad to see a brother on board.")

Civil service did not find that Pierre had discriminated against Wilson because of her race or gender. But during the hearing deliberations, which were open to the public at Wilson's request, members of the board said they were troubled by what they had heard, according to a partial transcript.

Several board members said that Pierre had intimidated Wilson with the knife, that she had been "set up," and that there was a "tilt against her" in the department. "It is obviously a troubled little group," said the board chair.

Wilson is now pursuing her case with the EEOC and plans to return to the department, but she knows it will be tough. She finally received the captain's pay she was owed, but her rank was reduced to its original level. She also must return the acting lieutenant's pay she received while on leave.

"I love the department, and I plan on staying a long time," Wilson says. "But I'm a fighter. I've been injured in fires. I've had knives pulled on me in the back of ambulances. I've had guys not like me. I dealt with all of it. It was part of the job. But what happened to me when I went to recruiting was just something I couldn't deal with. I was made to look like a problem child, and that's bullshit. It was unfair, and it was ugly. I really believe it was all about power and race."

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