AUSTIN — Adding diversity to the Austin Fire Department is a top priority for the new fire chief.
Chief Joel Baker was sworn in less than two weeks ago, becoming the city's first African American fire chief.
"The journey to fire chief began really as a firefighter,” Chief Baker said. “You have to start planning to become fire chief before you become fire chief."
After more than 30 years with the Atlanta Fire Department, Chief Baker is now an Austinite and he's starting to settle in.
In his office, he brought with him several items, each has a unique story all its own.
“You know, that's an opportunity that I had to meet two presidents, a vice president and, of course, Congressman John Lewis, who is a civil rights icon and someone I really have really a lot respect for,” Chief Baker said.
On another wall, it's all about firefighters -- specifically black firefighters who made history, like the photo of the first three African American firefighters in Austin who saved a life and the first 16 African American firefighters hired Atlanta.
Now, in Austin, Chief Baker is making history of his own.
“As the first African American fire chief, I'm honored and humbled by that. But when I think about it, I'm really not the first in my eyes -- the first African American fire chief,” Chief Baker said.
He said those before him are the reason why he's where he is today.
"Although they may not have served as the fire chief, they provided opportunities for people like me and other people to come after me to serve as fire chief,” Chief Baker said.
This two-time fire chief wants to make a difference in the growing city of Austin, and said he wants to start by bringing in more diversity.
"It's important that the Austin Fire Department, as much as we can, reflect the community in which we serve,” Chief Baker said. “We’re going to really use the African American firefighters on the City of Austin Fire Department to recruit African Americans. We’re going to use the Latino/Hispanic firefighters on the Austin Fire Department to go reach out to the Hispanic/Latino community.”
The department starts hiring in early February.
Diversity is key for Austin Fire because, as you may recall, in 2012 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) started investigating whether or not the fire department's hiring practices were discriminatory.
An agreement between the city and DOJ was settled by a federal judge the following year.