Fire Chief Fights Diversity Battles

Kerr called back to Arkansas for a pending lawsuit

Rhoda Mae Kerr
Rhoda Mae Kerr (Photo by John Anderson)

It seems that controversy follows Austin Fire Department Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr wherever she goes. While extinguishing local blazes over everything from staffing decisions to a redesign of the department emblem, Kerr was called back to Little Rock, Ark. – where she previously served as fire chief – to testify in a July 13 lawsuit against the city and herself. The issues at hand – cries of reverse discrimination from a white, male firefighter – illustrate the tensions unleashed when women elbow their way in to this male-dominated field.

The plaintiff is Robert Walla, a fire captain Kerr demoted to engineer following a 2006 incident. Walla allowed a friend to steer the rear portion of a ladder fire engine, which she did – right into a concrete light post, causing $500 worth of damage. Later that evening, Walla allowed his female guest to spend the night at the firehouse, against his supervisor's direction. (Walla doesn't recall receiving such instructions and has argued that as captain, it was his call.) The demotion also occurred in light of a 2005 incident in which Walla was, by the department's telling, "publicly disrespectful" to Kerr. Hoping to help Hurricane Katrina evacuees, Walla approached Janet Huckabee – politico and wife of then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee – and began querying her for information about assistance efforts. Attempting to steer him away from the first lady, Kerr put her hand on Walla's shoulder, and Walla yelled, "Get your hands off me – I don't want you to touch me!" According to a grievance form from Walla, he was "subjectively considered to be rude, confrontational and disrespectful only when his personal space was violated and he was physically touched by a superior officer without his permission."

In 2007, Walla appealed the decision to the Little Rock Civil Service Commission but was rebuffed; soon after, he filed a "civil rights" suit in the Pulaski County circuit court, complaining Kerr "has consistently applied one standard to herself and female firefighters while applying a different standard of conduct to males by punishing males more harshly." One such example of this discrimination: Kerr "disciplined a male firefighter for allegedly using the term 'bitch' while she herself uses the term 'dickhead' in referring to a male firefighter." The trial in Little Rock ended the same day it started, with Kerr and the city winning.

While the incidents in question occurred before Kerr's move to Austin, her time here has also been turbulent. Her choice to elevate two minority firefighters to assistant-chief positions, in order to bolster historically poor diversity within the department, has been met with complaints – and now sits against the national backdrop of the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in favor of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who complained that they were unfairly passed over for promotion.

As Little Rock reminds us, it's hard for firefighting females to press forward without feeling the burn.

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Rhoda Mae Kerr, Austin Fire Department, Robert Walla

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