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M-DC’s first Black fire chief talks about his rise and fall from grace

Pens his autobiography to “set the record straight”

D. Kevin McNeir | 9/19/2013, 9 a.m.
Charles U. Phillips, former Miami-Dade County fire chief will soon kick off a national and local book signing tour. For more information go to www.charlesuphillips.com.

In July 2003, Charles U. Phillips, now-60, resigned his post as Miami-Dade County’s first Black fire chief — two months after County officials began investigating allegations that he had sexually harassed an employee. The employee, who worked as Phillips’ executive assistant, also alleged that he had forced her to complete his coursework for a doctoral program in which he was enrolled. In the end, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office found no criminal wrongdoing from their investigation.

The Miami Times filed a report on Phillips in January 2002, shortly after he took the helm as the chief of the largest fire department in the southeast U.S. Now, he returns to talk with us about his recently-published memoirs, “Fighting More Than Fires,” which he describes as a story of “betrayal, deception and perseverance.”

“I started with the fire department in 1974 in a class where only 12 survived training and achieved permanent status,” he said. “Unlike the police department, the fire service was more like an exclusive country club. Most of the men were Irish or Italian immigrants and because you lived with those guys one-third of your time, they wanted to know if we [Blacks] could get along with whites. My mother had always taught me that I should never forget where I came from so it was important for me to prove myself.”

The importance of history

In early 1970, a federal court in Miami ordered and mandated that Metro-Dade County allow Blacks, and other minorities, access to the Metro-Dade Fire Department. When Phillips joined the Department, he was one of 10 Black firefighters from among close to 400 uniformed personnel. He says it was something that he had dreamed about since first seeing scenes of firemen attack civil rights marchers with hoses on televised programs.

“I wanted to do something to positively contribute to history but at the same time it was important for me to never forget what had happened in the past,” he said.

Accused, humiliated and . . . redeemed

Phillips moved up the ranks, being promoted in 1997 as the Department’s first Black deputy fire chief. He says he could not have anticipated that after achieving the highest honor of becoming chief that the unthinkable would happen.

Phillips says that when he chose to resign, despite being cleared of all charges, he did so after being told by his superiors that “morale was low and that the fire union didn’t want me back.”

“I wasn’t offered a compensation package and after stepping down it took me about two years to regain my old self,” he said. “My reputation had been severely damaged and I was in a real state of depression. Being a fire fighter was, to me, the greatest career anyone could ever have. It was my job for 29 years. But I had refused to follow the party line and had been threatened in a number of ways.”

Why did it take him so long to write the book?

My wife died last August after a lengthy illness — we had been together for 35 years and she was my biggest cheerleader and my strength,” he said. “I had been writing for 10 years but had to devote the majority of my time to her. I just figured it was finally time to both set the record straight and to empower those who may one day find themselves walking in my footsteps. It’s been a10-year, gut-wrenching experience but I feel redeemed. Most of all, I persevered.”

Phillips will kick off a national and local book signing tour next week. For more information go to www.charlesuphillips.com.