‘Change is wanted:’ New Orlando Fire chief says diversity is the department’s biggest challenge

Barksdale plans to meet with all stations, shifts prior to making changes

Upholding a nearly 135 year tradition, Benjamin Barksdale Jr. was officially sworn in as Orlando Fire Department's Newest Fire Chief.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Upholding a nearly 135-year tradition, Benjamin Barksdale Jr. was officially sworn in as Orlando Fire Department’s newest fire chief. The traditional Change of Command Ceremony took place at the Dr. Phillip’s Center for the Performing Arts Monday morning.

“It’s a true honor to be selected as the 20th fire chief here in the City Beautiful,” Barksdale said.

Barksdale most recently served as the fire chief of Prince George’s County, Maryland leading more than 2,500 personnel, including both sworn and volunteer firefighters. According to a release by the city, Barksdale began his career in 1987 with the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia where he rose up in the ranks to the assistant fire chief. City officials say he also was one of the first to respond to the Pentagon during the September 11th attacks.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer admitted it is not typical to not hire from within, however, he felt the change was needed.

"Every once in a while it's good to check outside the department see if there is somebody who can provide a little bit different of perspective and I think that's what we need right now," Dyer said.

This comes after back in February, the former Fire Chief Roderick Williams resigned amid allegations of harassment and retaliation. Barksdale’s vision is to overcome and create what he says a “culture of respect.”

“From what I’ve heard this far, change is wanted,” Barksdale said. “Change is absolutely wanted from the way things were done in the past."

However, he says, that change won’t come in his first 100 days because he’s taking the time to listen.

Barskdale is about one-third of the way through visiting all the shifts at all stations, asking firefighters what they most love about the Orlando Fire Department and what would they change if they were chief for a day. His goal: diversity and inclusiveness.

“The biggest challenge right now is diversity,” Barksdale said. “It’s going to take cooperation with everyone.”

According to statistics provided by the Orlando Fire Department, African Americans make up less than 9% of sworn firefighters and 12% of the civilian staff.

Within Orange County Fire Rescue, which is twice the size of the Orlando Fire Department, minorities make up 48.6% of the workforce. Female firefighters make up 8% of firefighters -- twice the national average--, according to a department spokesperson.

That’s why Dyer said Barksdale was right for the job.

"Chief Barksdale has a great history of diversification and inclusion so that's something we've been looking for," he said.

Barskdale began his new role with the Orlando Fire Department last month.