Diversity, Inclusion and Safety

If the past is prologue, there’s much to be learned about the effect of diversity and inclusion on safety.

The fire service generally places a premium on experience and the value of experiential learning. There is a belief by some that the only real learning is that gained through experience.

From a more academic standpoint, Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle begins with experiences that individuals have had, followed by opportunities to reflect on those experiences.

They then conceptualize and draw conclusions about what they experienced, leading to future actions in which the students experiment with different behaviors.

This begins the cycle anew as students have new experiences based on their experimentation (Oxendine, Robinson and Willson, 2004).

A challenge for some is the experimentation that should lead to future actions.

Too often, the conclusions drawn are that it’s too hard to deal with diversity and inclusion. Early efforts to create an environment that’s both diverse and inclusive will generally be fraught with issues.

One source of confusion revolves around the definitions of the terms themselves.

Diversity is “the state of being diverse; variety.” This isn’t simply visual differences, but is fundamentally difference associated with how each of us perceives the world around us.

Inclusion is “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure.” This concept focuses on the degree to which the differences that all bring to an organization are accepted by the dominant culture.

Ultimately the goal of an organization should focus on achieving both diversity and inclusion.

Limited research has been done on the connection between diversity, inclusion and safety in the fire and emergency service.

While diversity is generally argued to be an effort, primarily externally focused, to “represent the community we serve,” there’s a connection to those inside the organization as well.

One study focused on the health effects on people of color in the fire service; it discovered that the effects are not only profound, but are connected to the diversity of the community itself. The study found:

Individual and community minority status (i.e., ethnic density effect) were both significantly associated with a number of important health status indicators, with racial/ethnic minority firefighters demonstrating greater risk for unfavorable body composition and more poor physical health days.

In addition, minority firefighters in white dominated communities reported the highest prevalence of lifetime diagnosis of depression by a physician, while minority firefighters in minority dominated communities had the lowest (Poston, Haddock, Jahnke, Jitnarin, Day and Daniels 2015).

Harassment, distasteful jokes, whispers and open campaigns against those who are different from the dominant culture can have a significant effect on the health of not only those targeted, but also the organization itself.

These actions come with an implicit threat of violence and in many communities, the negative publicity, loss of neighborhood support and legal issues including lawsuits can affect the ability of fire service organizations to acquire needed resources.

They also affect the organization’s ability to hire the best and brightest from the community.

It isn’t likely that members of communities of color or women will want to be a part of an organization that has create a perception in the community that they aren’t wanted, whether the perception is intentional or not.

A lens through which diversity and inclusion can be viewed is a “diversity and inclusion matrix.” The Good Governance Institute (2011) suggests that diversity and inclusion can exist at six levels:

  • Level 0 is where there’s no organizational diversity or inclusion. An argument could be made that diversity without inclusion or inclusion within a homogeneous group is Level 0.5.
  • At level 1, the basic level, the principles of diversity and inclusion are accepted and there is a commitment to action.
  • At level 2, there’s early diversity and inclusion progress, such as new members who are different from the dominant culture have greater inclusion with a group or individual they had been previous excluded from.
  • At Level 3, measurable results are being achieved.
  • At Level 4, the diversity and inclusion culture has matured to the point that it’s a part of everyday life in the organization.
  • At Level 5, the organization has become an exemplar of diversity and inclusion and regularly assists other organizations in achieving the same.

For a safety professional, everything connects to safety. Diversity and inclusion are no exceptions.

But from an inclusive perceptive, the lives and working environments of everyone in an organization, from either the dominant or the nondominant culture, benefit from exposure to one another.

From an organizational perspective, as communities becomes more diverse, the public-safety organization that can serve a broader customer base will likely have access to a greater market share of the resources allocated a given purpose.

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