By Ann Rowland
When a lieutenant with the Orange County (Florida) Fire Rescue saw the departmental fire ax with a Confederate flag painted on it lying in the front yard at the scene of a house fire that his station and Engine 42 were battling, he immediately notified a supervisor and removed the ax. He did so before the African-American homeowner could see the ax. The firefighter who painted the ax was suspended and the report into the incident has just been released and is calling for other departmental changes.
Firefighter Jonathan Holton of Engine 42 is not just another firefighter with Orange County Fire Rescue. He is the son of Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Holton. The younger Holton denies being a “racist” or that he intended to offend anyone. He painted the flag on the ax to “touch it up” and, for him, the rebel flag represents “small town roots and the “core values of family and hard work.” Holton was placed on a 12 hour unpaid suspension following the incident.
In an interview with WFTV-Orlando, Orange County Fire Rescue Chief Otto Drozd said “To me, they have a responsibility towards the citizens we serve.” The incident report also points to a “culture of entitlement” at Engine 42 and the chief is transferring more than half of the staff from Engine 42 to other fire stations.
The chief and other department officials find it “startling” that other firefighters at Engine 42, including supervisors who are responsible for equipment checks, did not see the flag painted on the ax. “Either they knew and did nothing, or they should have known and come forward and stopped it. And that’s the expectation that I have of all my officers,” Drozd said.
African-American firefighters at Engine 42 are quoted in the report as saying that if they had seen the ax with the rebel flag it would have “rubbed” them the wrong way. For many African-Americans, the flag represents slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.
Otis Turner, a neighbor who lives across the street from the home where the ax was found, told WFTV that if he had seen the ax in his front yard he would have told the firefighters “to go bring me the Stars and Stripes, the Stars and Stripes flag and then come back and put the fire out.” Turner, an African-American, is satisfied with the changes initiated by the chief following this incident.
In addition to the transfers, Chief Drozd will begin yearly diversity training and will consider diversity backgrounds when promoting. In addition, he has increased the penalty for defacing fire department property with unauthorized symbols.