The subject of diversity in the fire service is likely to bring a strong response depending on your perspective. It is still a topic that is difficult to discuss openly. However, it is my hope that we will do so.
In doing so, we will embrace our brotherhood (notice the “her” in brotherhood), develop better relationships, and focus more intently on increasing the diversity within our ranks. Below are 5 reasons diversity is important in the fire service.
#1 – Diversity Drives Innovation
Research demonstrates that diverse groups are more productive and reach more creative solutions to complex problems than do homogenous groups. For example, when EMTs are faced with moving a large patient from a small area, the diversity of thought might conclude that using blankets or lifting belts may move the patient faster than brute strength alone or perhaps employ a combination of the two strategies.
Our diverse thoughts allow us to see things differently which may add to our situational awareness on a fire ground or other emergency incidents. It is important for the fire service to remember that diversity is more than just race and gender.
Great fire departments intentionally consider hiring individuals from different backgrounds, different worldviews, different learning styles, and different walks of life.
An example of this would be the hiring of military veterans. Some firefighters work different trades and own businesses on their off days such as plumbing or construction work. Other firefighters have hobbies such as being a fitness expert, sports fanatics, hunting and fishing enthusiasts. When we get to know one another working in the firehouse, we all have a better life from those added experiences. We enrich our own lives when we learn from others who have different backgrounds.
#2 – Reflecting Community Demographics
No, I’m not talking about quotas or having a certain number of women or racial and ethnic minorities. I am talking about having good firefighters that reflect the demographics of the communities that we serve.
The general public sees us in our non-emergency activities like fire inspections, building surveys, fire drills, and community education programs. These activities often are the primary opportunity for community members to talk with members of the department. During these interactions, they are likely “sizing us up.” When communities see our diverse workforce during these non-emergency times, they may be more responsive to our efforts during emergency situations.
For example, I remember responding to emergency calls that, because I was an African-American, I was able to defuse potential volatile situations: the victim gave me the benefit of the doubt that they could trust me, and by extension they trusted the whole work crew.
Likewise, there may be situations that would benefit from having a female member of the work crew — such as assisting a female victim of a battery or sexual assault. You can imagine a similar situation in which a language barrier exists and thus it makes sense to recruit and hire individuals who are multilingual into the fire service.
#3 – Legal Rulings Regarding Diversity
There have been several legal rulings in larger cities such as Chicago and New York because of past hiring practices that excluded women and racial and ethnic minorities. No fire departments want a lawsuit or a public relations incident because of discrimination practices. The threat of lawsuits and bad publicity should be more than reason enough for a fire chief, police and fire commissioners, and political stakeholders to make diversity important within the department.
#4 – Financial Ramifications
There are financial ramifications for not having a diverse workforce. In municipal departments, taxpayers pay for a good majority of an emergency services budget. When a tax base feels alienated, it is difficult to justify an increase in taxes to increase staffing, equipment and other resources needed to operate the department.
Having the fire department be a model of diversity shows taxpayers that their financial investment is well spent.
#5 – Ethical Reasons
In our profession, we are required to provide service to anyone who calls 911 regardless of the caller’s social, economic or racial background. At the same time, anyone who applies to our fire departments should know that our hiring practices are fair and equitable. Prospective employees (and volunteers) should be treated with respect. Having a diverse workforce is ethically the right thing to do.
The 21st Century fire service must expand beyond its historical demographic make-up from the 20th Century. A diverse workforce allows us to understand each other within the fire station and ultimately to better serve the diverse community we respond to.
Photo courtesy of Johnny Winston, Jr.