When working at a public-education event several years ago, I was approached by a young Asian boy who was about 10 or 11 years old, the same age as my youngest son. I will never forget his words: “Wow, I didn’t know you could be a firefighter; could I be a firefighter too?”
I gave him the typical response and went through the motions: “Of course you can! Do you want a helmet? Would you like to see the fire truck?”
Of the hundreds of kids I have met in the fire service, his comment stuck with me, and at first I didn’t know why. It wasn’t until looking in the mirror later that day that I truly understood his question. This was the first time he had seen a firefighter who looked like him. It is no secret to myself that I am a biracial person of color and have Asian and Pacific Islander decent, but I never understood what that meant to others in the community, especially our youth.
Career, paid-on-call or volunteer – the fire service is an exclusive brother- and sisterhood. We all wear the same uniform, take the same oath to save lives and protect property, and are usually put in high regard and deeply respected by the communities we serve. Being exclusive is something we should be proud of. However, we must realize that it is equally important to be diverse and inclusive.
In many of our communities, demographics are constantly changing. This can be challenging in adapting our services, but it also creates a new opportunity to recruit, mentor and train a diverse and inclusive fire service that reflects the community we serve.
Since many of our community members may not know fire and emergency service opportunities are open to them, we must look for more equitable approaches in our recruitment processes. This can be accomplished by having a strong fire explorer program, developing an EMS academy or hiring interns who are interested in a fire service career.
But it also requires that we look at our hiring processes. As with most organizations, we base our hiring on who has the most training, certifications or experience or who has the best scores on a written exam or physical agility test. While this is an equal and safe approach, it is not always equitable.
To be equitable, we must first understand that there is a difference between equality and equity.
Equality means applying the same standards and treating everyone the same. Equity is applying tools and resources to meet the needs of individuals so they can be successful.
We must realize that not everyone starts at the same place or has the same needs. For example, pretend you are a track coach and want your team to have matching team shoes. You purchase a dozen matching pairs of size-nine running shoes and distribute them to your team.
You are treating everyone equally, but you are not being equitable.
Most likely, not everyone on the team has the same shoe size or the shoes you picked may not be the most comfortable for some. As a result, some will be successful and others will be at a disadvantage.
An equitable coach would not want everyone on the team to have matching shoes, but rather shoes that fit the individual. This allows everyone to maximize their potential and to participate equally.
In terms of hiring, we must also look at skills and life experiences that can be of value not only to your organization, but to the community as well. To be clear, this does not mean we should lower our standards or qualifications in hiring, but we must recognize that there are other assets that a diverse workforce can bring.
We must also consider placing value on those who speak a second language and on soft skills that cannot be taught, such as those gained from lived experiences. One of my past chiefs once said, “Hire for attitude, train to skill.”
The city of Saint Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) identified a challenge many years ago in our hiring process; we were not getting a diverse applicant pool for fire-safety inspectors. The applicant pool was not only lacking diversity; many of the applicants applying were not even from our own state. We identified an opportunity to look at our hiring practices using an equitable lens.
As a result, we developed a career-pathway program that led to the creation of two new positions: DSI Trainee and DSI Fire Safety Inspector I. This resulted in a much wider and diverse applicant pool without lowering our hiring standards. Those hired in these positions were given benchmarks and clear expectations on what needed to be accomplished to achieve the next level within a certain time, such as to obtain their State Fire Inspector certification within a year or be separated from employment.
One of the applicants for these positions was a Hmong woman working as an intern for the city who did not know much about the fire service, but she was a strong candidate because she already had a strong working knowledge of the city, and as a bonus, spoke fluent Hmong. Since her hiring, she has finished her degree and has become the very first Hmong woman in the state of Minnesota to obtain her fire-inspector certification.
Since these entry-level positions are not as technical as the positions we were initially hiring for, some of the initial concerns were that these positions would require more staff time to train and mentor and that it could create a backlog in the work that already needed to be done. However, the opposite happened. Productivity increased since these positions allowed our other fire inspectors to focus on more technical and advanced work while giving these new employees relevant work experience.
Finding ways to create a diverse and inclusive workforce is not easy, but the result pays dividends. Just like purchasing a home, you must make an initial investment and continuously make improvements, but by doing so you will see a return: equity!