ELYRIA — The promotion came in November, but it was business as usual in the Elyria Fire Department until a resident brought a milestone to the attention of Fire Chief Richard Benton.
Much to his surprise — more so because it didn’t dawn on him that such a high point had yet to be reached in the department — Benton said it took a resident to tell him his department had promoted its first minority officer in 17-year veteran Chris Worthy.
Worthy, who is one of three African-Americans in the department, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant late last year.
“I felt bad that I missed it, but it wasn’t something I was looking for or even realized was a milestone because I have always just seen him as an excellent firefighter and great leader,” Benton said.
It is not too hard to believe.
Wednesday was business as usual for Worthy: paperwork and making sure the firefighters under his command went through their daily training routines between calls. He didn’t stand out or attempt to bring attention to his work but instead led by example.
“I knew it back in November, but I didn’t want to get promoted on that card,” he said. “I didn’t want to take attention away from me striving to be a good lieutenant.”
Worthy joined the Fire Department in May 1995. It was right around the time he had rose to the rank of lieutenant as a corrections officer at Lorain Correctional Institution. His career there was on track to see him advance to the rank of major in less than 10 more years, but Worthy said he felt it was time to leave the prison industry.
“You have to have a job that fits your personality,” he said. “I’m all about helping people and keeping them out of harm’s way — not keeping them locked up.”
An Akron native who moved to Elyria in 1992, Worthy said becoming a department leader wasn’t in his career plans — not just initially, but even as recent as a couple of years ago. He resisted the promotion path, which he said is probably true for a lot of minorities who enjoyed their work as firefighters.
“We have had a lot of good and great leaders who retired from the department that just didn’t go through the promotion department,” Benton said. “They had a wealth of information and expertise and shared what they knew with those coming up in the ranks.”
“And that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Worthy added. “There are so many areas where a firefighter can excel — HAZMAT, water rescue, confined space rescue — that not going through the promotion process is not a big deal. I resisted the promotion process myself, but after talking with some good friends and really asking myself if I had more to give the department, I decided to do it.”
Worthy was promoted after passing both a written and oral test, Benton said. His color had absolutely no bearing on the process.
“I just never looked at him or any other minority on the department as a minority,” Benton said. “They are all just great men.”
There are nine lieutenants on the department of 73 employees. In addition to Worthy, Firefighter Robert Atkinson is serving in the role of acting lieutenant and will be sworn in as the second African-American officer in the coming months when a captain in the department retires.
There are four other minorities in the department including another African-American and three Hispanic firefighters.
Both Worthy and Benton said they would like to see the department become one of more diversity.
“A diverse department is a strong department,” Worthy said. “When the Fire Department shows up no matter what we look like, people are happy to see us. But if we can go to a community and they see a face that looks like theirs, they tend to be more comfortable and trusting.”
Benton said the department is in the process of hiring two more firefighters and will begin the interview process in the coming weeks. Of the candidates who took a recently administered civil service eligibility exam, several are minorities as well as a few women. But there are no guarantees any of them ultimately will be hired.
The hires are coming on to fulfill the guidelines of a federal grant that pays for 23 Elyria firefighters, but the grant mandates the department keep 75 firefighters throughout the duration of the grant. The grant was awarded in July 2012 and lasts for three years.
“We will hire the best,” Benton said. “Firefighters like Lt. Worthy set the benchmark for the kind of people we are looking for because he has been nothing but a darn good firefighter.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.