Human Relations: If We Build It, They Will Come

In the film Field of Dreams, ghostly baseball players appear only after a field was completely prepared for them. They wouldn’t take the field until the diamond was groomed, baselines laid, dugouts ready.

Borrowing from the film’s title, we are emergency-service organizations and they are the skillful, compassionate, safety-conscious, potential recruits from our increasingly diverse communities.

There are many untapped, talented people who would be ready to play on our team and work for our mission if we would just prepare the workplace to recognize and harness their diverse and varied talents. If we recognize the value added to our mission by their participation and we seek a larger cadre of recruits from those diverse communities, then we must prepare the field—our department’s environment—to welcome this new talent.

If our department is not welcoming and prepared for personnel of diverse cultures, genders, sexual orientations, ages, educational and class backgrounds, and spiritualities, why would we expect recruits from those communities to knock on our doors?

Why would they choose to work for an organization that doesn’t recognize the unique perspectives or skills they offer and where they could not be successful?

Until we build a truly inclusive organization, we can’t expect to draw recruits from those diverse communities.

Barriers and Bridges

To shape the contemporary field that is our fire-service organization, there are old barriers to remove and new bridges to construct. Barriers and bridges can be simple or complex.

For example, to remove a barrier as seemingly insignificant (to some) as the continued use of fireman in our public outreach, the bridge is simple: use firefighter.

Below we’ll examine one significant and more-complex barrier and suggest a few bridges.

Barrier: Lack of Trust

Remarkably, members of our communities let us into their homes; they let us care for their elderly mother or their injured child. While it’s true many people do trust us, for how many are we just the only option in their emergency?

When we try to recruit in a community of color, an immigrant community, the LGBT community, among women, will they trust us with their daughter, their son, their spouse as a member of our department? Do they trust us to treat them with dignity, keep them safe and empower them to be successful?

To build trust requires consistent effort and commitment over time, but it can be broken in a moment with one careless comment or a thoughtless act.

Where trust and reputation are concerned, social media is often not our friend—when a single tweet, post or negative news story can rupture the bond of trust within our community.

Imagine you’ re assigned to present a candle safety program at the local Islamic Community Center. The night before your presentation, while firefighters are battling a blaze at a neighboring mosque, a retired firefighter from that department tweets, “block the hydrant. Let it burn.”

This actually happened.

How will you start to rebuild that trust and restore the department’s reputation during your candle safety program the next morning?

The impact on the department’s reputation, community esteem and the trust between the Islamic community and the department can be significant. That deplorable tweet may have been by one rogue, bigoted firefighter, but the repercussions could take months, maybe years, of intentional, consistent rebuilding to mend the breach of that sacred trust.

Bridges to Build Trust

Building trust demands a multifaceted approach. Here are just a few suggestions to build it, earn it and protect it:

  • Partner with diverse community groups, then create frequent opportunities to meet and learn from members of those communities.
  • Examine all department policies, testing and training for discriminatory practices and identify what barriers exist to potential recruits.
  • Train and equip all personnel to build a mission-focused, inclusive workplace; emphasizing the benefits of inclusion and diversity.
  • Train officers beyond operational capabilities, including such soft skills as conflict resolution, communication styles, mediation skills and cultural competence.
  • Develop clear expectations and accountability systems to correct behaviors that harm, bully or exclude and to reward affirming, inclusive behaviors.

Is our ball field prepped and ready for new, enthusiastic and skilled players? Is our department one that values the diversity of experiences and cultural perspectives? Do we prioritize problem-identification skills, problem-solving techniques, communication styles and innovative approaches to the job that recruits of color, women and the LBGT responders will bring?

Fire-service leaders must build the field first by constructing an inclusive workplace before attempting to diversify. Then they will come.

For additional inclusion and diversity resources, visit CulturalBridgesToJustice.org or contact Chief Olsson.

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