As of March 2021, Aurora Fire Rescue (AFR) had 441 employees—only 4.5 percent of whom were Black. Chase Vaughn, 33, is working to increase that number. An Aurora local who played linebacker for Smoky Hill High School, Colorado State University-Pueblo, and the Denver Broncos, Vaughn joined AFR in 2017 after retiring from pro football. Four years later, he volunteered for the department’s four-person diversity task force, which is charged with boosting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on Aurora’s fire and rescue squads. “My main motivation is to make sure we actually do things,” Vaughn says, “instead of having a DEI group just for looks.” 5280 recently spoke with Vaughn about how he intends to accomplish that.

5280: Why did you join AFR’s diversity task force?
Chase Vaughn: I want us to make the department a more accurate representation of our community. We’re not close, but it’s getting better. Right now, we’re remodeling some of our stations to add women’s bathrooms. I mean, how could more women join if there were no women’s bathrooms?

Why does representation in the department matter?
Growing up as Black kid in Aurora, I always liked Superman, right? But I never dressed as Superman for Halloween because he didn’t look like me. As a kid, my view on firefighters was the same. They’re heroes who looked nothing like me. So becoming one never crossed my mind or seemed possible. It was a Black firefighter who planted the seed in my head. I don’t know if the conversation would have had the same impact if it had been a white firefighter.

What’s the toughest part of the DEI work?
Firefighters are the most empathetic people, for sure, but they don’t understand the need for DEI. Historically, fire departments have frowned upon talking about differences: race, religion, politics. So for me to come around and say, “Hey, we’re going to talk about diversity,” is already a tough conversation.

What types of questions do you get most often from your colleagues?
Perhaps the most common is, “Why is there a lack of trust between the Black community and public servants like police officers and firefighters?” A few guys in the department see racism as past tense. They’ll say, “We don’t live in that time anymore.” And I have to say, “Well, actually, no, racism is very alive and well. You just don’t see it because you’re not used to having to.”

Do they have views on the role of police?
Firefighters work hand in hand with police, so there’s a whole “Brothers in Blue” mentality of protecting the cops. So much so that people get defensive if you say anything bad about them. What needs to be understood is that things are wrong and have been for a long time. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows—especially for the Black community.