In July of 2014, Ernest Malone, a veteran firefighter with the Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD) made history as he became the second African-American to be named to IFD’s top spot. The first was Joe Kimbrew, who was appointed over 25 years ago in 1987. Malone, who has served IFD for over 28 years, sat down with the Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper to discuss his progress over the past 120 days.
Recorder: In July, you mentioned your vision as chief was simple. To serve the customers, run the business, manage resources and develop employees. Do you feel that vision has been manifested during the past 120 days?
Malone: “We call those things you mentioned our four success indicators and actually, I think that we’re ahead of where I thought we would be at this point. As a department, we are data driven, yet people focused. There is a benefit for people at the end of any initiative that we create. We will always keep that in mind. We have developmental courses planned for 2015 and one class I am excited about is called Celebrating Our Differences.”
“When you mention cultural diversity, whether right or wrong, there can be a stigma associated with it so we’re going to celebrate the differences and talk about those here. We are also on our way to forming a three-year strategic plan. Our financial house is in order, our 2015 budget is intact and we will hold to that. Later this month, we will present our 10-year strategic plan on our apparatus and station placement.
We are going to implement long term solutions; we’re not putting band-aids on anything. Putting this department in a good place for a very long time is our overall goal. Our over-reaching instruction to the staff is that as an organization, we will operate with vision, discipline, passion, and conscience. I have 135 station visits scheduled, where I will visit every station during every shift. I’m excited about where we’re going and if our folks see that in me, hopefully, it can be contagious.”
Tell us more about the diversity initiatives you have planned. Does this translate to hiring practices as well?
“We have a unique situation here at IFD with our personnel. We don’t clock in at 8 a.m. and leave to go home at 4 p.m. We live together; we eat with each other, sleep in the same rooms, and do a very dangerous job that requires us to depend on one another. I don’t think our relationships are poor but they can always grow and get better. That’s why the Celebrating Our Differences course will not be a one time thing. It’s something we will continue to do and offer to our staff.
As far as hiring is concerned, we are always actively recruiting. Since I’ve been here I have added a full time recruitment officer to our staff. This person is going to work with a program we have starting at Arsenal Technical High School. We are excited about capturing those young kids and showing them the fire service. The mantra of that initiative we have going into 2015 is, ‘Take a Look at Us’ We are in competition for the best and the brightest and many people of color I speak with don’t consider the fire department when seeking out career opportunities.
Our salary and benefits are competitive with the current market and I’m confident if we show people what we have to offer, we can increase our applicant pool. We just ended a recent recruitment and application process. We had 100 women apply and over 350 African-Americans, as well as a great number of Asian and Latino applicants.”
What was one of the first orders of business you wanted to address when you stepped into this position?
“The process of professionalism. We have a very good department because of the 1,200 men and women we have. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way but I don’t think we’ve always supported them administratively, with where the department is going, by showing them the proverbial big picture. People will get on the bus with you but not so much if they don’t know where it’s going.
So we want to let them know they are a big part of our planning. I won’t do anything without discussing it with our employees first. I am a representative of them. I am a firefighter first. I will never make them sorry they have given me their trust as their leader.”
You have mentioned before that you would also like to address the health issues many in IFD face on and off the job. Could you elaborate on those efforts more?
“I’ve restructured the department into five bureaus and one of them that you’re referring to is Planning and Risk Management. The other four are Administration, Operations, Logistics, and Technical Services. We have a significant amount of injuries that happen at our work sites that aren’t related to emergency runs.
I want to identify what those are, why they’re happening, and eliminate them. I am putting together a focus group in February where we will bring in not only our internal health professionals but also health professionals from the community to help us look at our current program and see how it can be better. This includes everything from preventing injury to the process of helping a firefighter who has been injured along the road of recovery back to work.”
What are some of the other internal changes you have made or are planning to make? Also, what is the status of your plan to replace 25 pieces of fire equipment?
“We have created a compliance area to make sure the department is compliant with OSHA, and other governing standards. I also want IFD to be internationally accredited. There are over 30,000 fire departments in the United States and less than 200 are internationally accredited. It is my intent that IFD will join that rank.
We’ll be a registered agency in 2015 and we have three years to become fully accredited. As far as the 25 pieces of equipment are concerned, we are only referring to engines and ladders. When you talk about all our other auxiliary equipment, (rescue squads, boats, trailers, etc.) the problem just gets that much bigger. We are in critical status where we need to replace those things. We have just submitted an ‘Assistance to Firefighters’ grant asking for two new engines.
As far as funding is concerned, we will be very aggressive in applying for more grants. We are also going to have to be creative with the controller’s office, the city-county council, and the mayor’s office. I think they recognize the problem and I’m confident we will find a solution. IFD recognizes the financial situation we’re in and we recognize that several agencies in the city have needs but we’re going to articulate our needs in a very clear and long-term manner.”
You have mentioned the position of Fire Chief would be your greatest professional challenge. Do you still feel this way or have you become more acclimated to the role over the past 120 days?
“I think I had a good idea of what the position held, as I was the assistant chief of the organization for four years prior to this and worked under an excellent chief, Brian Sanford. However, I don’t want to get comfortable. I want to keep moving and continuously display passion.
I didn’t take this position not to do things. I’m not warming a seat and I don’t believe in just occupying space. We have an excellent department but it can certainly be better and I intend to do my part. Our people are the focus and they will be the ones to show our public how good IFD is.”