Traditionally white, fire departments offer chance at service, brotherhood — Part one of a two-part series on Asians in public service

By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Firefighter and paramedic Ray Ju has been with Fire District 1 in Snohomish County for 10 years. He is one of two Asian Americans at his station. (Photo by Zachariah Bryan/NWAW)

On a recent medic call on a sunny afternoon, Snohomish Fire Department firefighter and paramedic RayJu was the only Asian out of a group of six responders. Yet, as he said, it was all business. An elderly man had collapsed and blacked out on the bathroom floor and, though he had regained consciousness by the time the responders arrived, his wife had broken down in tears.

“It’s not like they’re looking at you and giving you that look,” Ju, 42, said of any possible prejudice in the fire department or from victims. “You’re basically just there to help someone … that’s all that matters.”

When it comes to prejudice, the fire department is often regarded differently from the police department, which often permeates controversy. But that’s not to say that most fire departments don’t have a problem with diversity. Many are predominantly white and under-reflect the diverse populations they serve.

Still, for more and more young Asian Americans, a career in the fire service has become an attractive one.

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Captain Preston Bhang was Seattle’s first Korean-American firefighter. Now he is the captain of the SFD Training Division. (Photo from SFD)

After all, its a job with a good salary (starting at around $65,000 in Seattle), full benefits, and a deep sense of self satisfaction in being able to save lives.

An underrepresented population

Captain Preston Bhang, the first Korean American firefighter in the Seattle Fire Department when he joined 31 years ago, has noticed an uptick in the number of Asians applying for and being accepted into the fire service. While the percentage of the Asian and Pacific Islander population in Seattle is around 14 percent, API employees comprise 8 percent of SFD’s total workforce. “I would like to see more,” Bhang said, but noted that the numbers are much better than when he first started.

In Snohomish County’s Fire District 1, which cover the cities of Edmonds, Brier, Mountlake Terrace, and Woodway, tracking the ethnicity of employees has proven harder than expected. Sixty-seven percent either declined to designate their ethnicity or failed to report it, leaving the district to make visual observations. In their service area, Southwest Snohomish County, Asians comprise the largest ethnic population per capita, 15.5 percent.

District 1 Fire Commissioner David Chan, the first and only Asian commissioner in Washington, believes there are many cultural aspects as to why Asians don’t join the fire service.

“I don’t think a lot of Asians ever thought of being a fireman. I think Asians — I know I’m stereotyping again — want to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers. These are kind of the ‘prom jobs,’ ” he said.

Chan blamed in part media representation of firefighters, mentioning “Backdraft,” the 1991 Hollywood action movie starring Kurt Russell and William Baldwin. In the film, the two actors chase around a dangerous arsonist while acting dramatically macho. Naturally, giant explosions and pyrotechnics are plentiful.

“They (Asians) see it as a really dangerous job … as macho, big, you have to be 6’5″, 250 pounds, powerful, strong. In general, Asians might think, ‘Well, I’m not big or tall enough to be a fireman,” Chan said.

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David Chan

Chan said more than macho firemen, the fire department needs more medics. In Fire District 1, 77 percent of the calls are for medical emergencies. In Seattle, the number is 83 percent.

There is also at this point little family tradition in the fire service for Asians, Chan said. While white people may have a long tradition reaching back to when the fire department was all volunteer — and all white — Asians don’t enjoy such lineage.

“In Asian tradition, there isn’t a father, there isn’t an uncle who is a fireman,” Chan said, adding that, as a result, many Asians didn’t have a role model to look up to in the fire service.

For Ju, while he said his first generation parents from China were generally open-minded about what he did in life, they had few, if any, opinions on his choice to be a firefighter.

“I think they slowly grasped the idea of what I do, you know, because it’s not the norm for Asians to be in the service,” he said.

It was Ju’s older sister and brother-in-law, both flight nurses, who helped push him in the direction of being a medic and firefighter, because they knew he liked to interact with people and enjoyed doing something different every day.

Ju, said his parents have come to accept his career more wholeheartedly. “I don’t think they look down at my job, or up to my job,” he said.

Bhang, who is third generation on his father’s side and fourth generation on his mother’s side, said that as Asians become more settled into America, they are less likely to have the same cultural stigma about joining the fire service.

Moving forward

Due to a hiring freeze, Chief Ed Widdis said District 1 has not been able to hire anyone in years, effectively shelving the initiation of a diversity plan. Still, he has his fingers crossed that property taxes, which support much of their budget and which have been in sharp decline the past few years, finally turn positive next year.

Currently, Fire District 1 has few solidified plans to diversify their workforce, though ideas have been tossed around. The district is looking at the main source of where they hire employees, including fire service training programs, such as the Fire Officer Associate of Applied Science at Edmonds Community College and the Fire Service Technology class at the Sno-Isle Tech Center.

Widdis said he hoped they could somehow promote diversity at the schools, but was unsure yet as to what that would look like.

Back in Seattle, which has a larger budget to work with, Bhang described a number of ways in which they have reached out to the community.

The Human Resource Department targets diverse candidates by placing ads in community ethnic newspapers, setting up booths at community events and festivals, and running two cadet programs — the Senior Cadet Program for ages 19 and over, and the Fire Cadet Company 511 for ages 16 to 19.

The most important thing, Bhang said, is to reach people while they are still young and plant that seed of interest in joining the fire service.

Two years ago, SFD expanded their recruitment office from just one captain to a 23-member task force consisting of firefighters and officers. The task force is also looking into removing identifiable barriers to candidates of color, including the application fee and the Emergency Medical Technician requirement, which may disproportionately affect people of color.

Meanwhile, Asians who are already in the fire service are quick to extoll its benefits.

Ju said it has become a lifelong career, one which he will not likely quit. For him, even though he is only one of two Asians at his station, his co-workers have become family.

“The thing I love about the fire service is the brotherhood. I’ve probably spent a third of my life right here at the fire house,” Ju said. “It sounds kind of corny, but they’ve been to my house, they’ve met my family, they know my kids. … I know these guys have my back. I would go anywhere with these guys. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, Asian, female, or anything else.” (end)

Zachariah Bryan can be contacted at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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