Two of Cambridge's minority firefighters said they have never experienced racism or sexism in the department, but did have some ideas of how to increase diversity.
Dave House, an African-American fire captain, said he would like to see more outreach to young people on social platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook. Stephanie Crayton, the only minority female firefighter in the department, said that she would like to see recruitment at places like the Rindge Tower, a 273-unit affordable housing in Cambridge, to reach "families that are from different nations that would love to do something for the city."
"What a great community outreach that would be," she added.
Born and raised in Central Square area, Dave House never thought about becoming a firefighter until the summer of 1986. He was preparing to go to Connecticut for college when he learned that his track-and-field scholarship would not work out. Feeling upset, he went back home where his cousin, who is now a retired firefighter, told him to take the firefighter written test.
"I turned out to be in the right place at the right time," House said. "Because back in 1986, when I came on in that climate, they were looking for minorities."
After a year of training, he was officially a Cambridge firefighter. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1998 and has served eight years as a captain since 2010. He is in charge of 16 people and Engine 8 at Taylor Square.
House financially assisted his four minority friends who grew up with him to take the firefighter exam, but none of them made it through. He said one person he supported through four attempts finally got to the final interview stage, but was withdrawn from the candidates' list due to a "sealed record."
House said that while the state-wide firefighter exam could help hire more qualified people based on scores, the drawback is that minorities might not be able to compete with those who have more privileged backgrounds.
An additional hurdle for minority kids is not having family members or people who can guide them through the process, he noted. He suggested using both social media and in-person tactics, like sending more young officers to go into public and private schools to attract young men and women rather than someone "around 50 years old like me," he laughed.
While the captain admitted that the department needs to make more effort in hiring and outreach, he said the current staff members are pretty decent.
"Whoever walks in that door—black, white, male, female, transgender, straight, gay, whatever it is—the bottom line is, we all wear that same patch and we all feel pretty proud of who we are and what we do," House said.
Stephanie Crayton, who works on the River Street firehouse, is the only minority female firefighter from Cambridge in the entire department. She was a single mother when she took the written exam in April 2012.
Crayton said she is a member of Triple F (Fabulous Female Firefighters), a group that gathers women working in fire services around the world to motivate each other through organizing regular discussion and training.
"Being a member of Triple F helps to remind me I am a woman in a male-dominated field," Crayton said.
The Cambridge Fire Department is supportive and open, Crayton noted, but said that abuse is not unheard of. A firefighter friend received personal attacks online, she said, after posting a photo on Twitter of 15 Asian female firefighters who graduated from the academy in New York.
Below, people had posted horrible comments, she said: "Who needs a bunch of women on an engine truck?" "I'd like to see them try to carry me out."
"Even though it's not about you and you know it's some crazy person on the internet who probably isn't even firefighter, it still stings and hurts," Crayton said.
Before receiving training in the Fire Academy in July 2014, Crayton said she went through a five-hour-long background investigation, as well as psychological and physical tests.
"I have friends who are in the Fire Department, and if I didn't have those friends, I would have given up because I had no idea what the process was," Crayton said, which she said was "very long, confusing, and emotional."
Three events in her life paved her way to becoming a firefighter, she said. As a girl, she witnessed three major fires on Cogswell Avenue where she lived in Cambridge. In the 1990s, she worked as a flight attendant and attended a fire class. And after reading a book about women and firefighting, she became determined to be a firefighter.
"I have always hated working behind a desk and not doing physical things," Crayton said. "I couldn't be happier now."
Crayton completed the EMT (Emergency Medical Technicians) test, earned a master's degree in public administration with a concentration of emergency management, and recently passed her paramedic test.