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A Stronger Fire Service Future Through Inclusiveness

The issue of diversity and inclusiveness is a touchy topic, but open discussion can both help facilitate discussion and be a driving force. This momentum can create tolerance of all races, creeds, genders and sexual orientation within the fire service.

With diversity and inclusiveness, a more-cohesive community is created that can better serve the public. We need to discuss these issues in ways that promotes positive action yet isn’t hostile towards those who may resist change.

Many experts believe discussing diversity and inclusiveness in the fire and emergency service tends to be an uncomfortable conversation, and many people deem it an old issue or one that’s been fixed by modern laws and expectations and so open dialogue is limited.

“I believe there’s an inherent awkwardness when it comes to discussing diversity and inclusiveness within the fire service,” Chief Mike Burton of Tamarac (Fla.) Fire Rescue said. “This awkwardness can be overpowering; it keeps many people from having good, open dialogue.”

Generational diversity offers a great example of how open conversation can help. Each generation brings different experiences with diversity and inclusiveness, both in the fire service and beyond, that can contribute to greater understanding.

While older personnel offer guidance and experience from the height of the civil rights movement and subsequent changes, they can be resistant to change. On the other hand, the younger generation has been raised in a culture that is (generally) more inclusive and constantly changing. For these reasons, younger personnel may be more open to change in the fire service and may be better positioned to spot situations that require sensitivity.

“One of the issues right now comes in the older generation not being as receptive to change,” firefighter and paramedic Nicholas Lambert of the Oxford (Mass.) Fire/EMS said. “It can sometimes seem like there’s a very large ‘brotherhood’ that can make fun and jest, but someone just entering the fire service from another culture make take the joking and jesting as offensive, even if there was no intention of hurting the individual.”

Different generational perspective may present difficulties, particularly if younger members feel they have to challenge officers to do the right thing or older officers—particularly those who spent years fighting for equality—feel misunderstood or underappreciated. But if their perspectives are welcomed, multiple generations can bring their experiences to the table to help the fire service move forward.

Another problem that arises when discussing diversity and inclusiveness is the somewhat ineffectiveness of training sessions. The approaches fire departments take to diversity and inclusiveness training can affect how well ideas are received.

“There is acceptance training within the fire service,” said Chief Sheri Bemis of the Oxford (Mass.) Fire/EMS. “But it’s usually approached with a ‘Hey guys, we have to do this so you must believe in it.’ But how you approach it and the mindset you have can change the effectiveness of the training.”

Moving Forward

It’s critical to get the word out to your department that diversity and inclusiveness is a valuable asset to any organization, as it offers a broad range of perspectives.

“For public service, open-mindedness comes with the job,” according to firefighter and paramedic Stephanie Johnson of Tamarac (Fla.) Fire Rescue. “Public service covers many diverse areas, and fire departments have a responsibility to grow as the population around them grows. We need more people who speak more than one language and come from different nationalities, because when someone is experiencing an emergency, it doesn’t matter what race or gender they are or what background they come from; they just want to be comforted and helped out of the situation. Having a diverse fire service allows us to relate to and communicate with the growing population of the community around us and enables us to better serve our community.”

Others interviewed agree, but noted the recruitment and retention challenges the fire service faces. In some cases, the fire service must battle against perceptions based on local history and fire department actions (or inaction).

However, one growing concern comes from the challenges presented by growing immigrant populations that are attractive to fire department recruiters. These potential members may come from countries where the fire department isn’t seen as a viable profession or where any government agency is viewed as suspicious.

In either event, education is the key.

“I think the fire service can do a better job of marketing itself,” said Chief Benjamin Barksdale of the Prince George’s County (Md.) Fire and EMS Department. “There are many ads from the armed services on TV right now that show that they’re diverse and willing to accept you for what you are; everyone has a role they play and a different function. We need to represent ourselves in a similar light to get more people of different backgrounds to join the fire service.”

Chief David Fulmer of the West Licking (Ohio) Joint Fire District agrees that every individual in the fire service offers a unique perspective and so all voices should be heard: “We need to show that everyone brings something new to the table.”

Although the issue of diversity and inclusiveness won’t change overnight, there are steps the fire service can take to make progress in this area. (See sidebar.)

“Small, initial steps can help us to bring more diversity and inclusiveness,” Chief Burton said. “We can’t conquer the world, but we can start building better relationships within the fire service and with the community. True inclusion starts by making a connection, by making one relationship at a time, not 10 or 20. If we all can do this, then we’ll move forward. We’ll make progress.”

Sydney Mahan is an intern in the IAFC’s Strategic Services department. Ann Davison, CAE, is the strategic information manager for the IAFC.

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