A 41-year-old probationary firefighter has been fired after his first day on the job because he brought a watermelon to work.
Robert Pattison went to introduce himself to his fellow firefighters and, as was the tradition at the firehouse, brought some food to share. But while most rookie firefighters brought donuts, Pattison brought a watermelon. Some of the black firefighters, who make up about 90% of the station, said they were offended by the act and the Detroit Fire Department decided to fire the probie.
“When you get your first detail at a firehouse you pretty much know what you are getting yourself into,” Patrick Trout told Fox 2, “So you would have to say it was probably a bad call.”
FOX 2 asked, “Is it racially insensitive to bring a watermelon into a fire house?”
“To some people,” McCarty said.
Pattison told Fox 2 by phone that it was not a joke; he hadn’t meant to offend his fellow firefighters.
The news outlet reported, “Fire Commissioner Eric Jones says the Fenton native was officially discharged.”
Jones said in a statement: “There is zero tolerance for discriminatory behavior inside the Detroit Fire Department. On Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, at Engine 55, a trial firefighter (probationary employee) engaged in unsatisfactory work behavior which was deemed offensive and racially insensitive to members of the Detroit Fire Department.”
“After a thorough investigation, it was determined that the best course of action was to terminate the employment of this probationary employee,” he added.
Fox 2 added, “In a world where racial tensions run high, some tell me the trial firefighter should have known better. Trout doesn’t know if he meant anything by it – but feels it was a bad choice.”
“For sure by far it was,” Pattison said.
Fox 2 asked, “Should he have lost his job over a watermelon?”
“I don’t think so,” McCarty said. “Between what he did and what was there are a few things that could have been done.”
If it wasn’t a joke, what was it? To unthinkingly play to stereotypes is insensitive — “a bad call,” as Mr. Trout observed. I suspect we would have seen a similar reaction from black firefighters if Pattison had brought a bucket of fried chicken or collard greens.
But the question here isn’t whether was Pattison wrong but rather whether hė should he have been fired. On the one hand, the department’s view is Pattison was a probationary worker and keeping him on would have caused racial friction. It was simply easier to fire him and avoid a racially tense situation.
Pattison would be correct in thinking this is terribly unfair. But it was still his error in judgment that led to the situation so, in the end, he has only himself to blame.