Sister Jonell Booker
was the first female to be hired in the Austin Fire Department in over 20
years after Betty Swint was hired in 1979. Ms. Booker was hired in 2005.
Her case is still ongoing and details cannot be mentioned at this time.
The stand that the Austin African-American Firefighters Association
takes is that she was not treated fairly and she has our support. Below is an article from the
Daily Texan and the Austin American Statesman with some history.
K-UT News Story - Audio
AFD works to diversify
Baker filed a lawsuit against the city of
Austin this May alleging that the former
fire cadet was fired due to discrimination.
retention of minorities and women in the Austin Fire Department have hit
bumpy roads in the last few decades, and officials for the department
said the demographics of the force reflect trends in fire departments
across the country.
Of the 975 firefighters of all ranks currently in AFD, only 37 of the
total are women and 763 are white.
A lawsuit filed against the city of Austin this May by Barbara Jonell
Baker, a 36-year-old cadet, alleges she was discriminated against and
fired because she is black and female. It is one of six discrimination
suits filed against the city's fire department since 1994, according to
The suit alleges a disparity in the way that Booker was treated compared
to her male colleagues. Booker was the only black woman firefighter in
The fire department said it would not comment on the suit, as it is
still pending litigation.
"There are differences in the treatment of African Americans and woman
in the Austin Fire Department," said Bobby Johns, president of the
Austin African American Fire Fighters Association, which filed an
affidavit in the Booker suit alleging she was treated differently.
"Discrimination exists everywhere, and the fire department is not immune
to those types of issues," said Austin City Councilman Mike Martinez, a
former president of the Austin Firefighters Association who spent 13
years in the force. "For me to say I've never witnessed it or
experienced it would be untruthful."
Martinez described race and gender issues in the force as "politically
volatile" and said that there has often been a tendency in the force to
sensationalize cases involving female or minority firefighters.
He said that the physical demands of the job stand as a hurdle for woman
in the force because women are held to the same standards as men.
"It requires a certain type of individual," Martinez said. "Not
everybody can do it."
Assistant Fire Chief Flo Soliz, who oversees recruiting for the
department, said that another major barrier he sees with attracting
minorities and women is the level of acceptance among different cultures
for the force and said that recruitment efforts are geared toward
introducing those who have traditionally not been represented in the
Martinez said that
even with the department's struggles in retaining female and minority
firefighters, Austin still fares better than other departments around
the state and country in terms of efforts to diversify its fire
He said within the last decade, the city has had to respond to court
rulings in civil complaint cases and mandates to implement diversity
For example, only eight blacks served in the force in 1977, when the
U.S. Justice Department ordered that AFD recruit and hire more
Efforts to increase diversity in the program have included attending
events with high numbers of women or minorities who might be fitted for
the work, said fire department spokeswoman Michelle DeCrane.
Since the inception of the first contract to increase diversity in 1997,
36 percent of the cadets hired have been minority or women, DeCrane
For his part, Martinez said he hopes to further involve the city in
efforts to diversify the force through allocating funds for recruiting
One of the most promising current measures, he said, is a fire academy
opening this fall at Lyndon Baines Johnson High School in Austin that
could attract minority and women students who have never considered the
force as a career option.
"I think our ultimate goal is to have a department that reflects the
community in terms of demographics, and obviously, we're not there here
in Austin, and we have a long way to go," Martinez said.
Austin Fire Department has no African-American female firefighters
By Claire Osborn
Saturday, June 03, 2006
Barbara JoNell Booker was looking for a secure job with good pay after
being laid off from her finance job at Dell in 2002.
Then, she said, an Austin Fire Department recruiter who worked out at
her gym suggested that she try out to become a firefighter because more
minorities and women were needed.
She was accepted to the fire department training academy in 2004 and
graduated. But two months later, she was fired.
Now, Booker, 36, has sued the city, claiming that she was discriminated
against because she is African American and female.
The Fire Department said it could not comment on the lawsuit, filed May
17, because it is pending litigation.
The department has struggled to recruit and retain women and minorities.
It currently has 37 female firefighters and 940 male firefighters. About
6 percent of the department is African American; all 54 African-American
firefighters are men.
The department has responded by starting a fire academy at LBJ High
School this year, Assistant Fire Chief Flo Soliz said. firefighting to students who may have never considered it as a career,
Lt. Richard Davis, vice president of the Austin African-American
Firefighter's Association, said that the academy is a good start but
that efforts to recruit minorities into the department have been slow.
Booker said she first noticed that she was being treated differently
when she was a cadet.
During the training, fire department staff members recommended twice
that she be fired for failing tests that others had also failed but had
not been singled out for, she said.
The first test was a biweekly written exam. The second was a "throw-bag"
skill test that involves holding one end of a rope while throwing the
rest of the rope, which is in a bag, a certain distance to help a
The Fire Department Cadet Oversight Committee Review Board reviewed the
recommendations that she be fired and sent them to the fire chief, the
Booker was retained, partly because the board found out that 60 percent
of the current firefighters could not pass the throw-bag test, the
When she entered the usual six-month probationary period after
graduating from the academy, Booker said, she noticed other differences
in the way she was treated.
Instead of being allowed to stay at the same station and develop
camaraderie as other cadets were, she was constantly shifted to
different stations, she said.
Her supervisor made comments about her "needing psychological assistance
(and) not being capable of being a firefighter," the lawsuit said.
Booker acknowledged that she had problems performing certain skills
during training. She said she wasn't able to hold a hose in the same
position for five minutes while it sprayed 250 gallons per minute. She
also said she forgot to turn on her oxygen supply during one training
"I didn't ask for special treatment," she said. "I knew I would need
Firefighters on probation are supposed to be graded on skills such as
carrying two hoses up a flight of stairs at the end of the six-month
probationary period, Booker said.
But she said her supervisor graded her during the first two months of
probation and even videotaped her, which she said did not happen to
Darren Hyson, a member of the Austin African-American Firefighter's
Association, said in an affidavit filed with the lawsuit that two other
firefighters on probation with Booker also had trouble learning certain
tasks but that their difficulties were not taped or documented like
Senior management officials told Booker in a Jan. 6, 2005, meeting that
they thought she should not be allowed to become a firefighter because
her performance was not "up to par," she said. Booker was fired the next
day, she said.
The Austin Firefighters Association has not taken a position on the
case, President Mike Martinez said.
"I can certainly sympathize with the struggles she went through," he
said. "This case is several years in the making, and there's a lot of
facts that have not been revealed that will be revealed during the