The IAFC has been a longtime supporter of diversity & inclusion within the fire service. However, the position statements and philosophies are more than just rhetoric; they are tangible principles that can help guide a department.
A major of example is the International Fellowship Program, where firefighters from Saudi Arabia are embedded within US fire departments. The Myrtle Beach Fire Dept. was honored to host cohort #13 from August 2018 until February 2019. In that time our members worked side by side with seven Saudi firefighters.
We taught them how we do things, and they reciprocated by showing us their tricks of the trade. But this experience was much more than just about the fire service. It cut deep into our core and placed Americans, mostly Christians, alongside Muslims. Let’s face it, while it’s difficult to talk about there is a stereotype associated with Muslims and those from the Middle East. However, in this program, we quickly learned that, above all else, we are all human beings, and we are all firefighters.
This sentiment was illustrated during the cohort’s second week with us as preparations were beginning for Hurricane Florence. When crews began to board the windows at Fire Station 3, the cohorts jumped right in. They didn’t really know anyone, they hadn’t even met the crews there, and had never experienced a Category 4 hurricane, yet they stood next to us ready to protect and serve the community: our community, which was now their community. It was Muslims and Christians, Saudis and Americans, standing side by side.
At that moment, no one cared what name you called your God, or what language you spoke, or the color of your skin. At that moment, we were all united in serving our fellow man. Also, in classic fire department fashion, when the work was done, everyone sat down at the kitchen table and enjoyed dinner prepared by our newly found Saudi brothers. We often joke that all the world’s problems can be solved at the kitchen table. But on this night it wasn’t about staffing, or pay, or apparatus, it was about solving the problem of stereotypes and indifference and seeing people for who they truly are. I believe that night set the tone for the fellowship experience. Our personnel bonded with the cohort.
They taught us so much about their culture, and we learned so much about ourselves. For those that were involved were changed for the better. It was an amazing and powerful experience that would not have been possible without the leadership exercised by the IAFC in taking a significant risk and developing this program.
This program educated our department and the cohorts on many different levels. Moreover, in the end, we believe this experience allows us to serve our community and each other on a higher level.
Thomas M. Gwyer, MS, EFO, is the fire chief of the Myrtle Beach Fire Department in South Carolina.