Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Racial friction smolders in Fire Department tiff

Peter Bronson

Where there is smoke, there's firehouse friction.

When a burning house can't soak up any more heat, it explodes in a flashover.

It looks something like the flare-up of anger by Cincinnati firefighters over the dismissal this weekend of Chaplain "Father Mike" Paraniuk.

Cincinnati Fire Fighters Local 48 President Joe Diebold calls it "the iceberg thing": Buried race friction and anger at the chief are exploding, ignited by the spark of Paraniuk's removal by Fire Chief Robert Wright. Smoldering resentments have erupted in public with claims of low morale, criticisms of the chief and tense race relations among 800 city firefighters.

Diebold said that if firefighters voted today, the chaplain would win in a landslide and only a handful of firefighters would vote to keep the chief.

"We have the lowest morale I have ever seen," he said. "We truly do have problems living and working together every day, and as the wound festers, someday we could have problems (at a fire), God forbid."

Wright says his critics have it all wrong.

He said he never set out to "fire" Paraniuk. Wright said he reprimanded Paraniuk for his behavior, especially

"bashing firefighters on a Web site" and "carrying tales from one firehouse to another."

Still, "When he left my office (last Thursday), everything was OK. As far as I was concerned, he was still our chaplain and it was over."

But by Friday, the chief says, Paraniuk had complained to the union and the press about the chief and spread the news that he was fired.

Paraniuk's version is as different as fire and ice.

He says he was canned on his first anniversary for trying to unify firefighters.

He said Wright is "wedded" to the Cincinnati African-American Firefighters Association, which he claims bullies black firefighters to keep them out of Local 48. The chaplain says his trouble started when he paid $900 in back dues so three black firefighters could rejoin the union.

The chief admits his cousin and a close friend are leaders of the black firefighters association, but says the rest of Paraniuk's story is "based on fiction. It's not true."

Wright has asked for an investigation of alleged bullying: "If that's happening, it's improper. I hope it's not true."

He says he knows firefighters are angry at him, and he wishes he had a better relationship with the union, but, "Regardless of their differences with me, I hope they treat each other well."

Diebold said the union has received more than 400 calls and more e-mails supporting reinstatement of Paraniuk.

But it doesn't look likely.

"That's pretty much a moot point," Wright said. During a meeting this week, "I told him I need him to refute what he said about me not being for unity. He said he can't do that."

Wright said scorching criticism goes with the job, but, "These are the most gloomy days of my career."

A firefighter at the end of a hose has to literally lean on another firefighter.

But right now, there is a dangerous kink in the Cincinnati Fire Division, called race problems.

It needs to be straightened out before someone gets hurt.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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