Rantz: How one contrived ‘equity’ complaint sent Seattle Fire scrambling to ban phrase

Aug 16, 2022, 6:28 PM | Updated: 7:00 pm

(KIRO 7)...

(KIRO 7)

(KIRO 7)

One Seattle man shamed an entire city department with a contrived complaint of racism. It prompted the Seattle Fire Department to ban the phrase “brown out.” The incident highlights how local leaders are so terrified of perceived social justice and race extremists, that they’re willing to embarrass themselves to appear woke.

Internal emails obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH show how the department kowtowed to the increasingly aggressive demands of one random Seattleite, forcing the department to write a memo it wasn’t ready to deliver, and even resulting in proactively inviting the man to meet with the Fire Chief, all while it navigates a critical staffing crisis.

The emails contained endless spelling and grammatical errors — the complainant even misspelled his first name — yet Seattle Fire jumped through hoops to please him, giving him what he wanted. Still, the complainant wasn’t pleased, so SFD leadership kept pandering in order to be seen as inclusive.

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Everything is racist

Armando Castillo introduced himself to the Seattle Fire Department and Seattle Office of Civil Rights as a 27-year-old “proud Latino currently living in the South Park neighborhood.”

Castillo’s email starts with a list of common complaints about life in the city: out-of-control homelessness and rising crime. He said he reached out to local police and firefighters and discovered a staffing crisis with both Seattle Fire and Seattle Police.

During those conversations, he was outraged to find out that Seattle Fire uses a phrase he claims is racist: “brown out.” When a Seattle Fire unit, like an engine or medic, is unstaffed and offline, it is experiencing a brown out. Castillo wasn’t pleased.

“There is no irony lost in the term,” Castillo wrote on March 31. “Throughout history, it has been the tradition of the white elite to use the color black to symbolize all things negative. Black has been tied to death and all things evil and bad. It evokes strong feelings of anger, aggression, fear, and sadness. The connection between black and negativity is probably most clearly seen in our language. Just consider these commonly used expressions: Black Monday. Black Plague. Black magic. Blackball. Blackhole. Black-hearted. Black sheep. Blackmail. Black market. Blackout. The list could go on.”

He made no mention of black gold, Black Friday, black tie affair, black belt, in the black, and other “positive” phrases. But what does this have to do with “brown out” exactly?

“With the recent attention to the BIPOC communities, in particular the black community as a result of the killing of George Floyd by police, it seems as if my brown Latino community has been forgotten,” Castillo complains. “I am left angry and frustrated that the city elects to reduce my community’s emergency services and then has the audacity to call it BROWNED OUT! Wouldn’t it make sense if something is removed or omitted that was previously there, it would be WHITED OUT?”

Demanding a response

Castillo asked the city to “reflect on the message that you are sending to my community” when it uses brown out.

“The term brown out lacks cultural sensitivity. It’s time for a change!” he emailed.

Would Seattle Fire change the term? They did not respond to his email, prompting Castillo to write a follow-up email on April 10 to say it was “extremely disappointing” to not get a response. In turn, this prompted City of Seattle Human Resources Interim Director Kimberly Loving, who Castillo CC’ed, to nudge Seattle Fire into responding.

Castillo received an automated response acknowledging receipt of his email. Since he put his concerns in with a public disclosure request, Seattle Fire did not immediately address him. On April 30, he sent another email to the same group of city leaders.

“Here we are, a month from my original email. I have heard nothing from any Seattle official addressing my concerns or even so much as a sympathetic ear!” he wrote. “I am a little surprised but mostly disappointed that I didn’t even get an acknowledgment from the fire chief that my concerns are being heard!”

He warned them that they could be “rest assured that my community will not stand for a continuing ‘Brown out,'” before offering “white out” as a suitable replacement (“I’m [sic] still partial to “White out” if you need some advise [sic] and can’t come up with something a little more neutral.”

In this email, Castillo appears to have misspelled his name, writing “Armondo” instead of “Armando.” It was one of many errors that might lead the city to dismiss him. But they took him seriously.

Finally, some pandering

Seattle Fire’s Human Resources Director Sarah Lee finally responded. She assured him that she would “be checking on the historical use of the terms ‘brown out,’ and we will be getting back to you regarding your concerns this week.”

But historical records are of no interest to Castillo.

“I do not care much if you find there has been a historical use of the term ‘brown out!’ As a society, we have done many things throughout history that, upon reflection, have proven to be exclusive and culturally insensitive! (Ex: Washington Redskins) I’m sure with very little effort, you can think of many examples, both culturally or gender-specific that, in hindsight, insight [sic] bias, resentment, and anger! Awareness is the start of change. I am looking to you to help inspire change,” he wrote.

Three days later, Lee sent a follow-up email to Castillo. Equity will soon be reached!

“SFD management discussed your concerns and SFD will no longer use the term ‘brown outs’ but will now use ‘unit(s) unavailable’ to describe when engines/EMS units are not in service. Thank you for bringing your concerns to us. We hope this change reaffirms SFD’s commitment and mission to serve all communities with dignity and respect,” Lee wrote.

Browbeat by a politically correct activist

No emails disclosed via public disclosure request at this time show Seattle Fire leadership actually found the term to be offensive or racist. There’s no history of the term being used in an offensive way, nor any complaints have been found; it’s been used to say something is “partially” offline, usually electricity.

Still, based on one complaint, from one 27-year-old speaking on behalf of a community that doesn’t appear to have complained, Seattle Fire was willing to ban a phrase from use in the department.

Emails suggest that Castillo still wasn’t satisfied.

While he thanked Seattle Fire for the move, he complained that “unit(s) unavailable” is misleading. He then requested that “more affluent neighborhoods” see their units go offline. And he made an observation.

This did not go over well with one member of Seattle Fire’s leadership.

“I’m not going to engage this person on any level about staffing issues,” a senior leader wrote in an email to Seattle Fire HR.

He followed up with an apology email.

“I’m sorry I was so abrupt. My point is he can not influence who gets shut down and why. We are under enough pressure from internal groups and the Union. No one wants it, and everyone thinks someone else should be doing it,” he wrote.

You better answer me!

Four days later, Castillo sent another email.

“Apparently, you felt like my question’s in my last email were rhetorical. I really don’t understand why I didn’t get a response [sic] from anyone from within the fire department regarding my last email!” he complained.

And he wasn’t done.

“On top of that, I recently ran into a one [sic] of my local fire engines at a local coffee house. They informed me that they hadn’t heard anything regarding the change in terminology when fire engines are [sic] out of service due to lack of personnel. I feel like I got lip service regarding the change,” he complained.

This email complaint prompted an invite for Castillo to meet Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins.

“We would like to offer you the opportunity to come and meet with Fire Chief Scoggins in person to discuss your concerns. If that isn’t possible, we can arrange a phone or video call,” emailed Helen Fitzpatrick, the Executive Director of Administration. “Email communications are not always the best way to have a dialogue around complex issues. As SFD HR Director Sarah Lee communicated to you in a previous email, the department remains committed to serving all communities with dignity and respect.”

Castillo declined the invitation. He wondered why two weeks wasn’t enough time to make the changes concerning the use of the faux-offensive term.

Seattle Fire gave in

HR Director Lee emailed leadership on May 15 that she thinks they need to send out “a memo to SFD all regarding the new term units unavailable to make sure everyone is aware.” On May 27, Lee also informed Castillo of the intent to circulate a memo.

Castillo hoped to be CC’ed on a memo, but it never happened.

“Here we are, two weeks later, after you stated you were creating a memo regarding the change. I assumed I just wasn’t included. However, I recently just found out while talking to my local fire engine crew that they still have not heard of the change. I was hopeful after all we went through the last two months to get to this point of a culture shift would be swift,” he wrote on June 9.

Four days later, Chief Scoggins sent a memo announcing the changes.

The Seattle Fire Department will no longer use the term “brown out” when describing department apparatus that aren’t in service. Instead, the department is using the term “units unstaffed.”

Please ensure that any formal or informal communications going forward, whether in department emails, memos, etc., uses “units unstaffed” to refer to engine, trucks, aid cars, medic units, etc., that are unavailable due to staffing.

Concerns were raised that the term “brown out” has negative connotations for communities of color. This change has been made to reaffirm SFD’s commitment and mission to serve all communities with dignity and respect.

Many firefighters ridiculed the memo in messages to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

Seattle Fire cares more about word policing than public safety

Seattle Fire is in the middle of an unprecedented staffing crisis.

After the COVID vaccine mandate, the department was left with dozens of open positions. It’s the very reason why so many units are browned out, impacting public safety.

According to internal documents obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, Seattle Fire was understaffed 69% of the time through June of 2022. It spent over $11 million to fund overtime to cover the vacancies.

Through June, the SFD was fully staffed only 31% (50) of the time, and not fully staffed 69% of the time (108 days). This disparity between 69% and the slide is that stat was through June 11, and the new stat accounts for all of June. This equates to 486 total units browned out this year, compared to 176 total units offline last year at this time.

The Seattle Firefighters Union, Local 27, has been sounding the alarms for months. They now upload daily staffing numbers that show which units are browned out.

Scoggins, however, has been relatively silent on the crisis, with no external communications strategy to quell any public concern over safety. Yet he and his department had time to waste on one contrived complaint over a term we’re supposed to pretend is racist.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3–6 pm on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Check back frequently for more news and analysis.

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Rantz: How one contrived ‘equity’ complaint sent Seattle Fire scrambling to ban phrase