Racism in Emergency Response Systems

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It seems that police officers are always in the spotlight in the debate about racism in our first response organizations. For many, police brutality is a well known fact. For some, it’s a myth — that first responders always have their constituents best interest at heart. Whats important is to determine the facts; is there some statistical data that can shed light on and ultimately end the debate about whether racism exists in our emergency response systems? Are firefighters and paramedics also participating in the same kind of systematic racism that police officers are accused of? Despite varying opinions, there is statistical data that supports the fact that racism is alive and well in our emergency response systems in the United States. Besides statistical analysis that can be done to determine these realities, one can also learn from the outcomes of natural disasters in poverty stricken areas that affect majority people of color populations. This paper will explain the ways that racism in emergency response systems can be quantified, and will include examples of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Hurricanes Katrina and Maria, The Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Chicago Police and Fire Departments.

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Flint, Michigan Water Crisis

One sobering example of racism in emergency response systems is disaster relief and ineffective city planning. The United States “has an abysmal record when it comes to protecting people of color from environmental hazards stemming from dangerous industrial activity and harmful infrastructure” (Maxwell, Center for American Progress). We see this time and time again — it seems as though the areas that suffer the most from natural and industrial disasters are those inhabited primarily by people of color, and the data suggests that this is not a coincidence. Most people in the United States are aware of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan but easily forget about the sheer amount of people that are affected on a daily basis. Flint was once the thriving home of the nations largest General Motors plant. The city took a massive hit when General Motors began downsizing, since a large part of Flint’s residents were in some way employed by, and reliant on, the General Motors plant. Flint’s economic problems were so severe that “the state of Michigan took over Flint’s finances after an audit projected a $25 million deficit” (CNN). In 2014, officials decided to divert “city water in an effort to save money but neglected to treat the water to prevent corrosion as it traveled through lead service lines” (Maxwell, Center for American Progress) this ultimately left more than 100,000 people in Flint exposed to toxic levels of lead in their water, making it essentially undrinkable. For months, “the state ignored the predominately black residents’ concerns and reassured them” that their drinking water was safe, despite “state employees receiving ‘coolers of purified water’” for their own consumption. Four years after the fact, many residents of Flint, Michigan have resorted to using bottled water for “drinking, bathing, and even flushing their toilets” with little effort from local or federal government to rectify the damage. While the water in Flint, Michigan is reportedly safe to drink, the trust between constituents and their government has corroded. Furthermore, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan serves as an extraordinary example of the ways in which people of color are essentially ignored in times of crisis; many people wonder if the situation in Flint would have carried on for so long without remedy if the population there were affluent white people (for clarity’s sake, the population of Flint, Michigan is an estimated 57 percent black, 37 percent white) — a lot of people would argue that no, Flint’s water crisis would have definitely been fixed under those circumstances. Others are resistant to this idea, as they refuse to come to terms with the United States’ deeply ingrained racism.

Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina is one of the most memorable and destructive events in recent United States History. Katrina was an incredibly strong hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in August of 2005. The hurricane wrecked havoc on many southern states, from central Florida to eastern Texas. The straw that broke the camels back in the case of Hurricane Katrina was the faulty engineering in the flood protection system — this is what lead to the images America remembers of Hurricane Katrina. “There were over 50 breaches in surge protection levees surrounding the city of New Orleans were the cause of the majority of the death and destruction during Katrina; 80% of the city became flooded” (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education) At least 1,836 people died in the hurricane and the subsequent flooding, which made Hurricane Katrina the deadliest hurricane in the United States since 1928 (JBHE). The flooding and ocean water reached anywhere from six to twelve miles from the beach and the damages caused by the hurricane were estimated to be roughly $125 billion. It would be “five days before significant federal or state help arrived for the tens of thousands of blacks who were marooned in the city. A number of African-American political leaders charged that the response would have been far quicker had the victims been in the predominantly white cities of Palm Beach or Boca Raton” (JBHE). We also cannot forget that just a few short years before Hurricane Katrina, former “Klan leader and neo-Nazi” David Duke “carried the white vote in a [Louisiana] election for governor” (JBHE). Racism was still alive and well in Louisiana, and it became “most apparent when three days after the hurricane, armed police from the predominantly white blue-collar community of Gretna prevented a large group of black pedestrians” stranded in New Orleans from “crossing a bridge into their city” (JBHE). The Mayor of Gretna, Ronnie C. Harris, said that the city was “concerned about life and property” and that “it was quite evident that a criminal element was contained” in the group of people who were seeking asylum in Gretna. The flaws in the engineering of the flood protection system coupled with the inherent racism of the government and even surrounding cities makes evident the lack of sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.

Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria is on record as “the tenth most intense Atlantic hurricane” (CNN World). It came ashore Puerto Rico on “September 20 with sustained winds of 155 mph, knocking out power to the entire island” (CNN World). At its worst, the hurricane caused catastrophic damage and numerous fatalities across the northeastern Caribbean. Total losses from the hurricane are estimated at upwards of $92 billions dollars. As of “August 2018, 3,057 people were estimated to have been killed by the hurricane with an estimated 2,975 of those deaths in Puerto Rico” (Vick, Kudacki). The aftermath of Hurricane Maria was exasperated by the United States governments slow response to the hurricane. Puerto Rico’s power grid was effectively destroyed by the hurricane which left millions of Puerto Ricans without electricity. Suan Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz “relayed Puerto Ricans’ complaints that aid was not reaching them” to President Trump, who replied that “[Puerto Ricans have] thrown our budget a little out of whack … such poor leadership … they want everything to be done for them” (Vick, Kudacki). There was much debate about the extent to which Hurricane Maria was an American problem. This was particularly problematic of the United States government considering Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are all United States territories; Puerto Ricans are United States citizens with access to free travel throughout mainland U.S. However, even President Donald Trump was ignorant to the fact that he is the Chief of State of these territories, claiming that “[he] met with the President of the Virgin Islands” (Vick, Kudacki). Further, the aid that was sent to Puerto Rico was very poorly distributed by those providing aid. A hospital boat was sent to Puerto Rico, which had a capacity of 260 hospital beds. Over the 53-day period the hospital boat was docked, only 290 patients were serviced. This illustrates an incredibly poor use of resources. Once again, we must ask ourselves if the color of Puerto Ricans’ skin played a role in the way the United States handled addressing disaster Hurricane Maria. Since Puerto Ricans speak a different language and look different from most Americans, do we simply forget they are Americans? It seems even the President wasn’t so sure.

The Dakota Access Pipeline

Another jarring example of the treatment of people of color in the United States is the Dakota Access oil pipeline. President trump “signed an executive order reviving the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which jeopardizes the water resources of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe” (Maxwell). The events that occurred during the period of attempted protection of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and its water source were reported on relentlessly, and the brutality by the hands of the government and armed personnel was ruthless. The country watched in horror as peaceful protesters were brutalized; many people were near fatally injured. The governments position on the matter of the Dakota Access pipeline was clear: they didn’t care about anything but money. In freezing temperatures, protests and indigenous peoples alike were sprayed with ice-cold water. It was very clear that those exercising their first amendment right to protest were not welcome at the construction grounds of the pipeline, and that the powers that be would stop at almost nothing to regain the land. President Trump’s “blatant indifference to months of protests reemphasizes the administration’s position that Big Oil profits take precedence over the health of native people” (Maxwell). Furthermore, the incident at Standing Rock is just one of many of its kind. Standing Rock illustrates a failure to respond to problems that specifically face people of color.

The Chicago Police and Fire Departments

Despite having the same rights on paper, people of color in the United States have long been treated like second class citizens. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement (and the ensuing Blue Lives Matter movement) Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed a task force whose job was to determine if police brutality against people of color is a reality. Unsurprisingly, that task force gave “validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color,” the task force wrote. “Stopped without justification, verbally and physically abused, and in some instances arrested, and then detained without counsel — that is what we heard about over and over again” (Davey & Smith, The New York Times). The task force also found that “three out of every four people on whom Chicago police officers tried to use Taser guns between 2012 and 2015 were black. And black drivers made up 46 percent of police traffic stops in 2013” (Davey & Smith). The black population in Chicago being only around 32 percent makes the number of police traffic stops disproportionately large for the black community. Despite the accessibility of this information, and despite the multiple studies done that prove that racism exists within our emergency response systems, many people choose to believe otherwise. This is the birthplace of the Blue Lives Matter movement, which, intentionally or unintentionally, completely dismisses and diminishes what the Black Lives Matter movement stands for. “Racism has contributed to a long pattern of institutional failures by the Chicago Police Department in which officers have mistreated people, operated without sufficient oversight, and lost the trust of residents” the task force found (Davey & Smith).

My own experiences with the fire department have given me a small but poignant insight into the culture of emergency response systems in Chicago. My father and my brother are both employed by the Chicago Fire Department, the former is a Lieutenant and the latter is a Paramedic. I’ve essentially grown up in a firehouse; I was dropped off at the firehouse after school when I was little if no one was home to watch me, and I’ve even spent the night over at the firehouse on a few different occasions (I’m not sure if this is allowed or not). I always knew the firehouse was a crude environment, but the boys (emphasis on boys) tried their hardest to maintain a certain level of decorum around me. However, I’ve overheard many things that shine light on the engrained and systematic racism that exists in firehouses (and, one can then assume, police departments as well and as has been statistically proven by the City of Chicago Task Force aforementioned). My father worked at Engine 76 for ten years, a firehouse stationed roughly at North Ave and Pulaski, essentially in the heart of West Humboldt Park. Humboldt Park is a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood. When a call comes over the radio at the firehouse, summoning the firefighters or paramedics, and sounds something like “insert something” the firemen, as if rehearsed, all say ‘Puerto Rican hysteria.’ And make jokes about how they should take their time getting suited up and in the truck. Whether they do move more slowly for a so-called ‘Puerto Rican hysteria’ call is something I cannot say (and perhaps the subject matter of a future paper). Just the other day, my dad was telling me a story about someone who said that ‘gypsies are his least favorite people to deal with.’ The point of these personal anecdotes is not to say that I think the people my father or my brother work with are terrible racists. The point is to say that I think the culture of the fire and police departments fosters a fraternity-like setting where racist ideas run rampant.


After taking a hard look at the state of emergency response systems in place in the United States and their reasonable in-deniability, one must wonder if people of color even have a voice in the so-called American democracy? Have our systems that are designed to serve and protect their constituents dehumanized people of color to such an extent that their lives carry no significance anymore? While many would consider this critical analysis of the systems in place anti-government or anti-police, it is clear that the only way to bring about real and lasting change is to take off our rose-colored lens and see at long last the true state of this country.

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Racism in Emergency Response Systems. (2019, Feb 05). Retrieved March 28, 2023 , from

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