As she settles in as the first African American woman to become a Baltimore Fire Department battalion chief, Charline B. Stokes can look back over a bumpy road.
She has gone from high school dropout and teenage mother to inexperienced, female driver among tough guy first responders. But she has risen steadily in the fire department, from paramedic to lieutenant to captain.
Even a ruptured appendix last month left Stokes undaunted. And on May 8, she was promoted to be the first African American female battalion chief in the 154-year history of the Baltimore City Fire Department.
“I am so thankful for this opportunity,” Stokes told the AFRO of her post as battalion chief for community outreach. “I am so thankful to God and my kids. I’ve always had a passion for compassion and taking care of people.
Stokes, a Baltimore native, dropped out of St. Francis High School in 1984 when she became pregnant with her daughter Tia Griffin. She received her GED in 1984 and then attended Baltimore City Community College.
When Stokes initially expressed interest in 1987 in the fire department, she said she was rejected because she was 50 pounds overweight. She lost the weight in three months, she said, and was hired as a paramedic assistant, but at 5-feet, 1-inch, fire department colleagues tried to discourage her, saying she was too short to drive an ambulance, she said.
“I couldn’t see over the steering wheel,” said Stokes. “I was 18-years-old and I had just got my license. I could barely drive a car, so I definitely could not drive the truck.”
Stokes said she was given only an hour of driving training and with her limited driving skills was unable to pass the driving test. She said she then filed a gender and racial discrimination complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The commission ruled in her favor and negotiated a settlement with the fire department that included three additional hours of driving training, enough to pass the driving test.
She said she has lived by a simple code: “Dedication, determination and discipline,” she said. Stokes served as a paramedic until March 2003 when she was promoted to lieutenant. In December 2007 she was promoted to captain.
Ian T. Brennan, spokesperson for the Baltimore City Fire Department, said members of the department were excited about the announcement of Stokes’ promotion.
“Chief Stokes is a superb addition to our command staff,” said Chief James S. Clark in a statement. “For many years, her commitment to excellence and community engagement has made her a valuable asset in the department, and for the city of Baltimore.”
NAACP Baltimore Branch President Tessa Hill-Aston said she was also pleased to hear of Stokes’ promotion.
“I am pleased that Stokes was promoted,” said Hill-Aston. “We are happy and elated about this. She has earned it. I am happy an African American female was picked and uplifted.”
While Stokes has helped to add some diversity to the city’s fire department, local racial advocacy anti-discrimination organizations say her appointment is not enough.
At the management level, the fire department’s personnel profile still does not reflect the Baltimore’ diversity, the critics say. Stokes’ promotion, along with Tavon A. Claggett, to battalion chief makes three African Americans in key fire department roles. There are more than 30 battalion chiefs. Three of the 10 deputy chiefs are Black and one of the two assistant chiefs in the department is Black.
What’s more, Stokes will have to do some nimble budget reprogramming to accommodate coming budget cuts. The fire department’s community outreach recruitment and education program is set to be dissolved on June 30 amid budget cuts for the department.
“The NAACP has been working with the fire department, with minority recruitment and diversity, but it hasn’t worked as well as I thought it would,” said Hill-Aston. “I was disappointed to hear that they were going to get rid of their community outreach department.”
Hill-Aston said the fire department should be working in the high schools and the Baltimore community to help pique the interest of the residents in the department. She said there should be a continuing push for outreach even if there is a current hiring freeze in the department.
“The budget calls for training and diversity,” said Brennan. “But going forward we are cutting back with our recruitment. As we lose the diversity division, many of their duties will be dissolved into other department like the training academy.