When Clint Reff was a young kid growing up in Duluth, there was one Black firefighter in the Duluth fire department — Ernie Butler.
"Ernie lived in our neighborhood,” Reff recalled. “So you'd see him and you knew he worked for the fire department. When I was younger, he started talking to me about the fire service, getting involved in it."
Reff grew up, went to high school, and joined the Army. But every time he ran into Butler, the firefighter would tell him to consider following in his footsteps.
Then, when Reff was about 30 years old, he got laid off from his job at a local foundry.
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"[And it] just so happened I saw him again,” Reff said. And once again, Butler brought up the fire department. “And I'm like, ‘If I'm ever going to do it, now's the time,’” said Reff. “So I went to school and finally listened after about the 20th time he talked to me about it."
In 1996, Reff became Duluth's second African American firefighter, just a couple years before Butler would retire. Reff's father was a minister, who instilled in him a sense of community service. But without Butler's persistence, Reff said, he never would have become a firefighter.
The job has changed a lot since he first started. The Duluth department has responded to more than 14,000 calls this year, and most of them aren't fires.
"It's almost like if it's not involving a knife or a gun, then people are calling the fire department,” Reff said, whether it’s because of a mental health crisis, a health emergency — even a rescue on Lake Superior.
Reff feels fortunate he's been able to work as a firefighter in Duluth for nearly 26 years. He says he'll miss the people he works with, and serving the community he’s lived in since his family moved from New Orleans when he was 1 year old.
“Everybody knows Clint,” said Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj. “He's got deep roots in the community. And people remember him. He's got the kind of personality that brings a smile to people's faces.”
‘We want to be diverse’
Reff’s retirement leaves a big hole to fill in the Duluth department, Krizaj said, because of those community connections, his institutional knowledge, and because it leaves only one African American firefighter remaining on a staff of about 130.
Additionally, seven women serve as Duluth firefighters — that accounts for about five percent of the staff. There are just a few Native American firefighters and members of other underrepresented groups.
Meanwhile, Duluth is growing more diverse. In the most recent census, about 84 percent of the city’s population identified as white only, compared to about 89 percent in the 2010 census.
One of Reff’s final accomplishments was to help create a scholarship fund through the local union to help women and members of other underrepresented groups become firefighters, so the department could become more reflective of the community it serves.
It's named after Ernie Butler and Pamela Wutz, the first female firefighter in Duluth.
After years of talking about diversity, but without those talks ever getting anywhere, it was time for action, Reff said. "I was truly done having the conversation, because I've had it in my career, like five, six times already," he said.
So union members decided to fund the scholarships out of their own pockets.
This year, with help from Minnesota Power and the Irving Community Club neighborhood group in West Duluth, the scholarship paid for nine people to take classes at Lake Superior College to obtain the certifications needed to apply for a job with the Fire Department.
"That's more than a start. I mean, one or two or three would have been amazing,” said Adam Casillas, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 101 in Duluth.
Firefighters, he said, want to have a positive impact every time they respond to a call.
"And for the fire department to do that we felt we needed to be better representative of the community, if not even more representative than what the community is. We want to be diverse, and have multiple backgrounds to pull from so we can be at our best in their time of need."
‘You see it, you can be it’
In Minnesota, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have departments that are much more diverse than those national averages.
In Minneapolis, nearly 32 percent of the department is made up of people of color. It's about 26 percent in St. Paul.
But it took lawsuits to help get them there. A lawsuit filed in the 1970s led to the integration of what at the time was an all-white Minneapolis department; a different suit in the 1980s against the St. Paul department led to the hiring of more women.
And after some initial boosts in recruitment, the number of women firefighters has begun to lag again. Women now make up just seven percent of St. Paul firefighters, and nine percent in Minneapolis.
Melanie Rucker, an assistant fire chief in Minneapolis, said to build a more diverse workforce, departments have to actively recruit for it.
Rucker said she was inspired to apply more than 20 years ago after she heard an ad on KMOJ radio in Minneapolis.
"This was mainly a predominantly white, male profession,” she said. “So people of color don't see, 'You see it, you can be it.' And when you don't see it, and when you don't realize this is an opportunity for you, you're not going to apply for it."
For Rucker, she said applying to be a firefighter was the best decision she’s ever made.
And now, she said people of color in the department actively visit local community groups to help inspire others.
“And I'll come out, I'm an African American female myself, and I want them to look at me and say, ‘Hmm, if she can do it, I can do it.’"
Both Minneapolis and St. Paul Fire Departments also have programs in which people in inner city neighborhoods are paid to receive emergency medical technician, or EMT training, which can then become a springboard for a job at the department.
Roy Mokosso, deputy chief for the St. Paul Fire Department, said having a staff that reflects the community they serve is necessary to build trust. And he said those people bring additional skill sets.
"I just think about calls that I've been on where I have a native Hmong speaker, or Somali speaker, or a Spanish speaker,” Mokosso said, to communicate with a community member they’re trying to help. “So our service delivery is better because of the diverse men and women in this department.”
Back in Duluth, Clint Reff and others are hopeful the fire department could soon further diversify its ranks. Several retirements and military deployments have opened up about 20 new positions to be filled early in the new year.
Chief Shawn Krizaj said it’s too early to say who’s going to be hired, but he said at least one person from the new scholarship program has progressed through the application process.
“It's going to be successful if we show people that there is a possibility of landing a job and landing actually a career here,” Krizaj said. “Not just going to classes or school for two months, and then what?"