On Feb. 21, 1984, Tawanna Robinson and the rest of her fellow firefighters received a call about a fire at a house on Myrtle Avenue NE. The firefighters came to the house to see that the windows and the doors had fire spewing out. Robinson received information that children were trapped in the burning house. Even though she was a rookie in the District’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (EMS), she rushed in to find a 2-year-old boy, Robert Thomas, hiding under a bed in the rear bedroom.
Robinson grabbed Thomas and navigated her way through the burning house to safety on the outside. She performed CPR on Thomas and he was transported to Children’s Hospital. The media picked up on Robinson’s actions and she received positive attention from the public and honors for her heroism in saving the life of Thomas.
Robinson said she loved her work as a firefighter and credits the predominantly Black Progressive Firefighters Association of Washington, D.C. (PFF) for giving her the inspiration to continue her work.
“I received a lot of moral support from the Progressive Firefighters throughout the years,” said Robinson, a 67-year-old Capitol Heights, Maryland resident. “They kept me going when things got a little tough at times.”
The PFF was founded in 1965 by a group of Black firefighters working for the District’s fire department. The purpose of the PFF is to promote the interests of Black employees of the D.C. Fire and EMS Department.
“The Progressive Firefighters Association of Washington, D.C. serves as an organization dedicated to seeing that Black firefighters and those that work in the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services are treated with dignity and respect as they perform their duties serving the people,” said Romeo O. Spaulding, a former PFF president who has served as the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters (IABPF) president, also.
The focus on the PFF comes as it will hold a special program recognizing its achievements in conjunction with the department on Feb. 21 at the D.C. Fire and EMS Training Academy located in Southwest. One of the highlights of the program will be honoring D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) as an honorary fire chief.
The program takes place as department data reports a large number of African Americans employed. According to 2022 department data, of the 2, 089 employees, 948 are Black which represents 45% of the workforce and 870 are white which represents 42% of workers. The department also revealed that it employs 348 women, representing 16% of the workforce, noting a jump of 3% since 2015. Plus, the percentage of women in uniform has increased from 11% to 14%. Department officials said in 2015, 12% of its hires were District residents compared to 50% of all hires in 2021.
Short History of Black D.C. Firefighters
Roland Hesmondhalgh wrote an article that appeared in the April 22, 2022, edition of The Washington Informer that talked about the formation of Engine 4, the first Black company in the District. Hesmondhalgh noted the first laws governing fire control in 1803 and the city’s fire department consisted of various rival volunteer groups utilizing buckets and hand-powered apparatus. He said plans for the first fire department received approval on July 1, 1864. He discussed the department’s first Black firefighter, John S. Brent who worked on Union Engine Company No. 1.
The article reported that by the end of World War I, African American Pvt. Charles E. Gibson, a driver in the now District of Columbia Fire Department, sought an all-Black fire unit due to the difficulty Blacks had in advancing through the ranks of the agency. Private Gibson, along with two other privates, Frank Hall and Richard J. Holmes, petitioned the city’s chief fire engineer and fire commissioner to organize an all-Black unit.
The fire department didn’t hire Blacks in large numbers until the 1980s, Spaulding said.
Romeo O. Spaulding on the PFF
Spaulding, who retired from the department on Aug. 22, 1992, with 26 years and 10 months of active service, served in several capacities while employed at the agency. He joined the fire department on Oct. 24, 1965, after studying at Howard University and working at the Columbia Hospital for Women. Spaulding rose through the ranks starting at the training academy and graduating with honors, eventually becoming the director of community relations and public fire safety education for the department. In addition to leading the IABPF, Spaulding served on the Advisory Board of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, on the executive board of the National Black Leadership Roundtable, the Black Congress on Health, Law, Economics as a member of the board and treasurer, and the International Human Rights Association of America as the United Nations representative for Black firefighters.
Spaulding, 82 and a resident of Capitol Heights, Maryland, said the work of the PFF has become more important than ever.
“We have had Black fire chiefs since Burton W. Johnson became the first African American in that position,” he said. “Still, there are vestiges of racism today in the firefighting ranks and we are working to address that. Also, we are involved in the community with such activities as toy drives in Ward 8, marching as a group in the Martin Luther King Jr., Peace Walk and Parade and the UniverSoul Circus. We provide training for our members and are heavily involved in the D.C. Fire and EMS Cadet Program.”
PFF and the Cadet Program
Established in 1986, the cadet program has graduated more than 400 firefighting professionals. The program is year-long and accepts high school graduates between the ages of 18 to 22. Cadets are paid approximately $30,000 a year while in training. After they graduate, their salary increases to about $55,000.
However, Garry Wiggins, the 17-year president of the PFF, has a slightly critical view of the program.
“I think the academy underserves our community,” said Wiggins, 60. “The recruits don’t look like me. We have complained about that many times.”
Wiggins, a resident of Northeast, said many recruits of color don’t seem to finish the program and recruiting efforts of paramedics doesn’t appear to take place in the District as opposed to other states.
PFF Takes on Racism
The PFF started as a response to the overt racism in the department, according to a book, “Fire Suppression/EMS: In the Shadow of Racial Disparity” written by former D.C. Fire Chief Theodore R. Coleman. Coleman talks about joining the fire department in 1953 as a private and how he confronted racial practices such as dishes that Blacks ate off of being trashed and how bunk beds in some firehouses had been labeled for Blacks only. Coleman said Black firefighters regularly put up with subtle and overt racial comments by their white peers and had to sometimes resort to filing complaints and taking some sort of legal or administrative action to get promotions and benefits their non-Black colleagues received routinely. Coleman said when he became the fire chief in 1982 as a result of an appointment by D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, his white subordinates sought to undermine his authority and some of them openly questioned his competence by pushing a vote of no confidence in the white-dominated firefighters union.
Nevertheless, Coleman said he persevered because he believed in the public service and the work of firefighters. He also supported the work of the PFF, noting in his book that the organization filed a lawsuit against the District government for alleged discrimination in the overall hiring practices of its rank-and-file personnel. Coleman said the lawsuit, filed while he served as the fire chief, forced him to address the vacant positions of Battalion Chief.
“It was agreed by all parties [PFF, District government] that the suit had no bearing on this particular position,” Coleman said in the book. “There were 20 slots in the Battalion Chief position that needed to be filled. As a result, 13 white and seven Black officers were promoted. The union members were up in arms, and otherwise outraged, because they felt that more whites should have been promoted within those 20 slots. However, my selection decision prevailed as a result of a reality check.”
Queen Anunay made history in 2022 when she became the first Black woman to become assistant fire chief in the history of the department. Anunay, 49, said she has been a proud, 30-year supporter of PFF.
“The organization has increasingly gotten better with its membership recruitment and programs,” she said. “I believe it is headed in the upward direction. Its leadership is focusing on bringing in younger people and mentoring them.”
Anunay, a resident of Northeast, said younger African American firefighters seem to be distracted from fighting battles dealing with unfair practices in the department.
“The young firefighters of today are the products of the information age,” she said. “They are on the Internet all the time. Their listening level is at an all-time low. It would seem they are self-serving. They don’t focus on the inner workings of the department the way they should.”
Jadonna Sanders, 52, works as a sergeant in the paramedic unit. Sanders joined the PFF in 2004 and said she has learned a lot while being a member of the organization.
“I eventually bought a lawsuit against the city for discrimination, and they helped me to navigate on how to do that effectively,” Sanders, who has a residence in Northeast, said. “There is still racism in the fire department today. We as Black people are played even today. The good ole boy network still exists.”
Wiggins said there are 200 members on the organization’s database, a dip in membership, however he remains upbeat about the future of the organization.
“We are still a grassroots organization that has ties to the community,” he said. “We are in the business of helping people. If we can help one or two people, that is a good payoff in my view.”
Tawanna is an outstanding woman with courage.
Thanks so very much for highlighting this very important story.
As a young firefighter,22 years of age, my former life of peace and tranquility became a nightmare after entering the DCFD.
At 84 years of age I am finally able to
Express how my career as a firefighter contributed to shaping my life.
Instead of experiencing the thrill and excitement of serving my community, because of racism, most of my time as a firefighter was spent in a survival mode.
I survived and thrived because of my family and faith.
Despite many horrors, There were however, good times and many lifelong friendships were made.
I now conclude that the experience
Was destined as I am now living peacefully, understanding that this phenomenon actually propelled me to a totally wonderful life without
bitterness or regret.
Thanks for this opportunity.
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