Whether I'm at home in southern California or traveling across North America and the world, I'm reminded at almost every turn that we have a problem in the fire service—one that used to get a great deal of attention, but has fallen off the radar screen lately.
With the exception of a few widely scattered departments that have excellent programs in place and an excellent track record, we're not a diverse profession, whose membership resembles the ethnic and gender diversity of the communities we serve. We're not an inclusive profession, one in which members of ethnic and gender minorities feel welcome and accepted in the workplace.
In a surprisingly large number of fire departments, we're even a profession where it's OK to harass and physically assault women and minorities—even rape women—in our fire stations.
The statistics speak for themselves. A U.S. Department of Labor report on the fire service in 2010 looked at the ethnic and gender makeup of the approximately 300,000 career firefighters in the United States. The report found that 9.6% are Hispanic, 6.4% are African American, 0.5% are Asian and 3.6% are women. The fire service is near the bottom of career choices for women and more than half of U.S. metropolitan areas have no paid female firefighters.
Those numbers are nothing to be proud of and I believe the numbers are probably even worse today due to the increased retirements in the economic downturn and the almost complete disappearance of most recruitment programs aimed at minorities and women. We continue to be a "white guy's club."
I naively thought that everyone understood the value of a diverse workforce and all we needed to do was get our eye back on the ball. Instead, when I raise the issue, more often than not I'm greeted by strange looks and people asking, "Why is this important?"
I don't have the space here to explain the value and importance of having a diverse workforce in our fire departments. A simple Google search will retrieve pages and pages of great information on the benefits of diversity. This also isn't about lowering standards to achieve artificial quotas. Minorities and women are perfectly capable of doing the job if given a fair opportunity.
Instead, this is about asking fire service leaders—you, the company officers and chiefs in fire departments across this country—to do something!
The fundamental attributes of great leaders include the ability to be aware of the world around them, to have the highest ethical and moral character to recognize what is right and the courage to do the right thing—and to lead their organizations in doing the right thing. I believe that the statistics above are a disgrace to the fire service. We can and should do better.
I challenge each fire service leader who reads this column to look in the mirror—look at your own organization—and answer the question, "Do we represent the community we serve."
If the answer is no, as it will be in the vast majority of fire departments, ask yourself what you're going to do about it. This is 2014, not the 1920s, '40s or even the '60s. We can and should be shining examples of a profession where our workforce looks like our community, where people are welcomed and embraced regardless of color or gender and where people can go to work without being harassed or assaulted.
Let's renew our commitment to diversity, inclusiveness and workplace safety. It's the right thing to do.
Chief William R. Metcalf, EFO, CFO
President and Chairman of the Board