Celebrating 50 years, how one organization helps bring more diversity to Cleveland fire departments

Posted at 9:17 AM, May 03, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-03 09:17:53-04

This year,  News 5 has been reporting on the need for diversity on both Cleveland’s fire and police departments. One organization has been dedicated to promoting that for firefighters and this week they’re celebrating a milestone.

50 years ago, The Vanguards of Cleveland joined the national effort to bring in more black and Hispanic firefighters to departments.

It’s something that Chief Johnny Brewington in Woodmere remembers being almost impossible to bust through the door.

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"Initially I was made to believe I was unhealthy," Chief Brewington said.

He was considered unhealthy and unfit for the job. Back in 1981, as a young recruit, Chief Brewington went to see a cardiologist for a heart problem, that didn't really exist.

“For a moment I was bitter, but I moved passed that," he said.

That’s just one example of the weeding out process many have witnessed.

“They would have doctors come in, [and] they came to a conclusion, a false conclusion that because our noses are wider, that we suck in more oxygen and we would deplete our air supply," said Rudolph Buffington, President of the Vanguards of Cleveland.

A recent Deloitte study found in the U.S., 85 percent of firefighters are white and just 6 percent are black.

“The evolution is still evolving,” said Chief Brewington.

That's why vanguards started, to help along that evolution.

"You feel a certain comfortability when you see people that look like you," Buffington said.

And that comfortability is what they now use to educate, promote and recruit more minority firefighters, going into schools and in the community, but 50 years in, leaders say there's still a long way to go.

“We should have our demographic for the city and the majority of the city is women, reflected in our workforce," Buffington said.

Vanguard's annual conference starts Thursday in downtown Cleveland. This year, they will be honoring the founders of the organization.