Education credited for Bell’s success

Debra Beal and Debra Beal

Affirmative action took root over 30 years ago, and has been an issue of debate since President Kennedy issued the first executive order to ensure that hiring and employment practices were free of racial bias. Yet in the case of Toledo Fire Chief, Mike Bell, affirmative action has worked.

It was an affirmative action quota that gave him the opportunity to work for the fire department, because there was a definite preference in hiring practices. “You had to be related to somebody,” Bell said.

Throughout his career, Bell overcame a few obstacles to reach the highest-ranking position, and was acknowledged as the first black to achieve several goals.

Bell is not only the first black fire chief for the city of Toledo, but he is also the first black to hold this position for a metropolitan city in the state of Ohio. At the time of his promotion at age 35, he became the youngest fire chief in the United States. His accomplishment is quite impressive considering he did not even plan on working for the fire department.

“I had no intention of becoming a firefighter,” Bell said. In the late 70s, “I was at the University of Toledo playing football. I had a good track record, too, being named student of the year.”

After Bell graduated with an education degree, he had plans to go out West and work in the national parks. However, his father, the acting affirmative action director for the city of Toledo, had a different idea.

“Dad knew about all the good jobs in the city that had affirmative action policies,” Bell said. Out of respect for his father, Bell took the fire department test at his father’s request. He was hired just before the quota was filled.

“Affirmative action opens a door, but you still have to perform. I think the scrutiny is more intense, because people expect you to fail,” Bell said. The general attitude around the fire station was that he would last maybe six months.

When Bell decided to apply for the position of a water rescue diver, he was curious about why there were no black divers on the rescue team. He was simply told that “blacks don’t swim.” That was news to Bell since he had swimming lessons as a child and had been on a swim team up until high school.

While swimming laps for the physical portion of the test, Bell drew a crowd of observers. “There were a bunch of guys watching from the sidelines, and they were just waiting for me to fail,” Bell said.

When he passed the physical test, Bell took pleasure in “screwing up their stereotypes,” and he became the first black diver in the department.

“What actually enabled me to become the first black fire chief in the state of Ohio within a metropolitan city was my education,” Bell said. Although his education degree is unrelated to his career, he feels the discipline he learned in college made a difference. Throughout his college years, Bell developed basic writing and speaking skills, good study habits and memorization techniques, which made it possible to pass the rigorous promotion tests to move up the ladder.

“Tests from one rank to another are equivalent to 16 college credits. There were anywhere from seven to 10 books we had to study for one test,” Bell said. After his first promotion to paramedic, the department put some obstacles in his path when he tried for the lieutenant promotion.

“People threw some hurdles up. I was not allowed to study at work, and there was forced overtime,” Bell said. That left little time to study for a difficult test when the competition was stiff.

Within the department, ranks go from paramedic to lieutenant, then to captain, battalion chief, deputy chief, assistant chief and head fire chief, with testing for each position. When Bell went from captain to head fire chief, he jumped three ranks, which was not a popular decision in the department. “It was unheard of [to jump three ranks.] That made a lot of people angry,” Bell said.

Once in the position of chief, Bell felt accepted by his colleagues and was treated with respect. The average age of a fire chief is 45, so Bell stood out being 10 years younger. When he attended regional meetings, he heard comments like, “Who’s that kid,” and Bell felt like he was busting a paradigm.

Looking over his years in the department, Bell recalled people both black and white that were willing to help him along the way because they liked his style. In his position of fire chief, Bell continued to promote diversity, and he became diversity committee chairman for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

In 2000, the organization recognized Chief Bell for his dedication and commitment in bringing the “critical issue [of diversity] to the forefront of the profession.” The Titan football coaches Herman Boone and Bill Yoast presented the award. Their battle with discrimination is told in the movie “Remember the Titans.”

While Bell’s climb up the ladder may have been difficult, he had an easy explanation for his success. “No one can measure your heart or determination,” Bell said.