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October 14, 2021 by  
Filed under Feature

Claytee D. White

The Fire Inside


How James Walker and Monroe Williams began changing the face of the Las Vegas Fire Department.

The story of the Black presence in the City of Las Vegas Fire Department begins with James Walker and Monroe Williams. That beginning ends with Dave Washington, who became the first Black fire chief and the trajectory continued into near-equality. In the 1960s, systemic racism in employment filtered through many job categories.

When opportunity struck, Williams was working at a local market in the Westside community.

“I was working behind the meat counter as a butcher in Ranch Market. A guy named James Walker came in and we were talking at the meat counter. He said, “I’m planning on going to the fire department.

I said, ‘The fire department? I never thought about that.’ So he said, ‘Why don’t you go down and put in an application?’ So I did.

“He and I got on and started the training program together. They took one bed and put our names on the bed. They separated us by putting him on one shift and putting me on the other shift. So he slept in the bed on one shift and then the next shift, I slept in the same bed.”

They were the first Blacks in the department. Walker left for different opportunities but Williams became a captain after 18 years with the department.

“After 18 years, I made captain, which was kind of unique because there was an ad in the paper that stated that today, four people were promoted to captain,” said Williams. “John Doe had been on the fire department for six years, John Smith had been on the department for 8 years, and Joe Doe had worked for ten years. And Monroe Williams has been on the fire department for 18 and a half years.”

In those 18 ½ years, Williams blazed a trail for many other Blacks including the man who would become the first Black fire chief, Dave Washington. He entered the department in 1974, after the time when the dinner plate used by a Black person would be thrown in the garbage so no one else would have to use it. Standing on the shoulders of many black men, Washington paved the way for women to enter the department.

“I was a training officer when women first came on the department,” said Washington. “I overheard brothers saying, ‘They’re going to be taking our jobs.’ I told them no one’s going to take your job if you are prepared for that next promotion. I just believe that everybody has a right to choose a type of employment. I’ve seen women that make some men look like chumps.”

Washington became fire chief in 2001. Serving as the chief wasn’t always easy.

I had a praise team because [people and issues] were coming at me every kind of way they could, Washington said. “I also had a civilian advisory board. I did not use them often but I recruited them after my first two or three years as a fire chief. But as far as the praise team – I would often say, ‘Let’s go to lunch, I need a special prayer.’ Or sometimes these people would just call me and say, ‘I’m going to pray for you today.

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