By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer

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Sacramento Fire Department

With a combined 50 years of public safety experience, Jonathan Burgess and Scott Williams took the initiative to apply for two Sacramento deputy fire chief openings. 

The Black firefighters met the Oct. 26 deadline and have been notified by the city that they meet the minimum requirements to be interviewed. Burgess told The OBSERVER on Oct. 31 that two deputy chief positions are available.

 “I don’t know how many people applied for them but there are two internal African Americans candidates applying for the executive leadership team for the Sacramento Fire Department (SFD).”

The positions previously required that applicants have a bachelor’s degree in fire technology fire science. The four-year degree certifies that the applicants have knowledge of fire prevention, fire protection and management.

Burgess shared that he has an associate of science degree in fire technology from a two-year community college, but not a bachelor’s. He does hold a bachelor’s degree in business management. The city has expanded qualifications to include “management, public or administration or related field,” according to its human resources department.

The deputy fire chief assists the chief in the development, proposal, and implementation of programs designed to provide quality fire protection services. The position requires that the deputy chief and chief work closely to develop strategies and solutions to critical issues.

Burgess, a battalion commander, has 28 years of experience in the city’s fire department. He is responsible for planning, organizing, coordinating, personnel management and supervising activities during an assigned shift.

Williams, the assistant chief, reports to the deputy chief. He performs administrative and technical work in directing fire department activities. Williams, who ranks higher than Burgess, assumes responsibility and command of the fire district in the absence of a superior officer.

“The requirement for the deputy chief position was broadened to expand the applicant pool,” Burgess said. “I’ve always met the requirements but education has always been a stumbling block for a number of reasons. Now the requirements give the ability for both of us to be applicable. This makes it more attractive for a diverse applicant pool. The city gets a pat on the back for that.”

To Burgess’ knowledge, there haven’t been two Black deputy fire chiefs in Sacramento at the same time. The city has had three Black fire chiefs: Ray Charles (1986-1988), Julius Cherry (2004-2006) and Ray S. Jones (2008-2013). Charles, who passed away in December 2020, was a firefighter for 30 years. 

Jones elevated Burgess to his current position from public information officer. “As a matter of fact, Scotty (Williams) and I were promoted together,” Burgess said. “We’ve both been chief officers for over 10 years. He just kept moving north of me.”

Burgess applied for deputy fire chief in February 2021, making it through two rounds of interviews. Gary Loesch was fire chief when Burgess applied, but he was fired in May after complaints of harassment and workplace retaliation within the department. Chris Costamagna, a 27-year department veteran, was promoted to chief in September by City Manager Howard Chan.

The fire department has been under constant scrutiny for complaints of racism and creating a “toxic culture,” Sacramento City Councilman Eric Guerra said in January 2021.

Guerra and the city council were made aware of the struggles Desmond Lewis, an African American, experienced as a firefighter. Lewis, who said he thought he had landed a “dream job,” quit after claiming the department was functioning under a racist and hostile work environment. In January 2021, the city council voted to investigate complaints and racial disparities within various city departments, including SFD.

According to the “2017 Audit of the City’s Gender and Ethnic Diversity” report, 72% of SFD’s employees are White while 4% are Black. Latinos make up 13% of department personnel and Asians 6%.

The city council action allowed the city auditor to present problem-solving and remedial measures and examine resolution practices in regard to attracting and hiring more diverse professionals.

Burgess, a businessman with a background in real estate, said he has worked extremely hard in public safety. He said he and Williams should be allowed to advance their careers within the department based on skills, qualifications and commitment to the community.

Hopefully the barriers that may have prevented upward mobility are a thing of the past “because this is a positive move for the city and what its goals are,” Burgess concluded. “What has been done now is a good thing as we move forward into the future. This is a positive move,” Burgess said. “It gives you at least the opportunity to sit down, put your name in the hat, and go after the job when you have enough experience. I say this because at the end of day it’s just you and that interview panel. I look forward to the process.”