Spokane fire chief embraces diversity, helping pave way for transgender fire captain

Signs on the doors of every Spokane fire station were recently posted that read "All are welcome here” and that culture change made one firefighter feel comfortable enough to come out as transgender.

KREM 2's Whitney Ward talks to the Spokane Fire Department about their diversity, and a firefighter who is transgender. None

When Brian Schaeffer was chosen to be the new Spokane Fire Chief, he set out to diversify the department in a way that extends beyond numbers. 

Schaeffer's role follows a family tradition.  He joined the Spokane Fire Department 12 years ago and his dad worked as a firefighter in Illinois.  He is now three months in as the new Spokane Fire Chief and is leading his department into brand new territory.

“Our role has significantly changed, more toward enhancing people's lives, preventing harm, and then responding to those emergency incidents,” Schaeffer said.  “The perspective we have now is: Everything we do is focused on enhancing people's lives and earning their trust.”

Back in May, Schaeffer was heavily criticized for posting a controversial sign stating “All are welcome here” on the front door of every fire station in the city.

“We’re open to everyone, and I firmly believe that,” Schaeffer said.

But not everyone liked the signs.

“And I don't expect them to. That's the beautiful thing about the United States. We can certainly have different beliefs,” Schaeffer said.  “But at the end of the day... It can't be something you just don't talk about. It's not a check box. It's not a policy. It's a culture, and to change that culture, it starts at the top.”

The idea for a change in culture started with Schaeffer and steadily has started to trickle down.

Maeve Griffith has been a part of Chief Schaeffer’s team for 18 years.  For most of her career, she went by John, harboring her transgender lifestyle from fellow firefighters and from her family.

“It's like having the worst thing that you'd want somebody to know about you, and having that, kind of, in the back of your head all the time,” Griffith said.

Griffith, a previous Air Force pilot, said her mindset remained that way for decades.  She is also married with two children.

She told her wife 22 years ago.

She told her children in 2016.

“When my wife asked me to tell our boys, it kind of brought it to the forefront, then I kinda had to deal with it,” Griffith said.

Beyond that tight-knit circle, very few people knew that she is transgender.

“The fire department is a pretty gossipy place, so even though you swore people to secrecy, the fuse was lit,” Griffith said.

The first step was to reveal the truth to Chief Brian Schaeffer. 

Griffith said she believed Schaeffer thought she was pulling his leg.  She has a reputation of being a prankster at the fire department.  Once he realized she was not joking around, she had a weight lifted off her shoulders.

With the help of the city’s human resource department, Maeve wrote an email telling the her world of fellow firefighters about the secret she kept for so long

“My wife actually hit the send button,” Maeve said.  “And you could almost see the mushroom clouds popping up over each station.”

Any feelings of fear were quickly diminished when the same fellow firefighters received a second email straight from the Chief.

“You know, he could have just talked about what the letter of the law was, but he also talked about it from a welcoming viewpoint. And, you know, I'm still the same person,” Griffith said.

In her original letter, Maeve said she was easygoing.  She told her fellow firefighters they could use whatever pronouns they wanted to when referring to her and they could call her whatever they want.  But her support system said she needed to be more demanding.

“They said, you know, you're actually setting a precedent for people who are coming after you,” Griffith said.

Since she sent her letter, Maeve began to pave the way for others who resonated with her feelings.

“I didn't see the effect that there are people who are gay on our job now, who have contacted me and said that it's really helped them be who they are,” Griffith said.  “And I didn't see that coming.”

Now, Griffith hopes to keep on paving the way for others as the newest captain of Spokane Station 3.  She is a direct reflection of the diverse community Schaeffer is trying to incorporate in to the department.

“Part of coming out, too, is that we're a diverse community.  And we should, the fire department, should be reflective of that community,” Griffith said.  “And really, right now, it's not. But it's moving that way.

For Schaeffer, this is part of a much larger goal to not just include the transgender community, but to include everyone.

“The best thing we can do for our organization, instead of surrounding ourselves with like likeness, is to embrace diversity and purposefully recruit and bring people in that have different perspectives,” Schaeffer said.  “And I've made the statement many times, we won't accept any intolerance, at all.”

For Maeve, it is exactly the kind of direction she aspired to.

“I think he is willing to change a culture that really is on the cusp of change anyways,” Griffith said.

Now, both Schaeffer and Griffith work for a fire department that is actively seeking change and promoting an environment that is accepting of people from all walks of life.

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