First Black SFFD Fire Boat Engineer Claims He Was Denied Work Due to Race

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A civil lawsuit filed Monday alleges a “whites only” color barrier at one of San Francisco Fire Department’s most coveted assignments – staffing the city’s fleet of fireboats. 

Lawrence Thomas has worked as a maritime engineer in the Bay Area for two decades, but it took him four years to get hired as a part-time reserve engineer in charge of maintaining the department’s fleet of specialized firefighting boats.

“Working for the San Francisco Fire Department is a career long dream,” he said, stressing he was anxious to get to work when he was hired back in 2018 as the city’s first Black fireboat engineer. 

But, two years later, Thomas says he has little to show for all his enthusiasm other than a shirt and a ballcap emblazoned with the logo for Fireboat Station No. 35. 

“They don’t want to let me serve in my position,” he said in a recent interview, stressing that he had to fight to get the fire department to agree to guarantee him eight hours a month in training. 

“This is a man we should be celebrating not denigrating,” said Capt. Sherman Tillman, president of the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association.

Tillman said he reviewed a decade of city employee records and found that while Thomas earned just $10,000 last year, his white predecessor averaged $70,000 annually. 

Also suing is veteran, now retired, firefighter David Hawkins, who said he had to leave the department after a year of retaliatory harassment for speaking up for Thomas. 

The suit filed Monday claims both men suffered from “a long-standing, deep-rooted policy and practice of employment discrimination against African Americans,’’ and demands the city be held liable for maintaining a “whites only” environment at Station No. 35 and for retaliation against them.

“It’s a pretty clean cut case based on race,” said their lawyer, veteran civil rights attorney and former city supervisor, Angela Alioto. She said what happened to Thomas is inexcusable, given his qualifications and willingness to learn. 

“He’s one of the best mechanics west of the Mississippi for these boats, and yet they don’t give him the respect – not only for the hours for the job, but any hours,” she said. “It’s quite amazing what they did.” 

The fire department’s spokesman said the department had not seen the suit and referred the matter to the City Attorney’s office. A spokesman there said the office cannot comment on pending litigation, but will respond in court to the allegations after its lawyers have been formally served with the suit.

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