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Approaching Diversity with Dignity

The IAFC has adopted a Human Dignity Statement, which updates two older statements on diversity and inclusion. The new position reflects the intent of the previous positions from 2004 and 2006 to support inclusive work environments and not tolerate acts of intentional discrimination. However, the new statement draws on language from other industries and offers clear guidance on the issues relevant to today's fire service.

"It's a shame that in 2013 the fire service still struggles so much with diversity and inclusiveness," said Chief Thomas Munoz, chair of the IAFC Human Relations Committee (HRC), "but the challenges we face today are not exactly the same as the challenges we faced 20—or even 10—years ago. We need to make sure we're not trying to solve current challenges with the tools of the past; we need to keep moving forward."

The position statement update, authored by the HRC, is the most recent piece of the committee's work to reposition the discussion on diversity and inclusion so the human elements that highlight the challenges and benefits of diversity dominate the discussion, not legal mandates or numbers.

"Too often people equate diversity with quantity, but it's really about quality: quality of opportunity to contribute, quality of the services we provide to our community, quality of leadership we offer to our staff and quality of life we provide to each member of our team," said Munoz. "We can't improve the numbers or avoid the lawsuits if we don't first commit to the idea that we have the power to create an environment in which quality thrives."

The HRC asserts that recognizing and upholding human dignity is the first step in addressing today's human-relations challenges. It not only strikes at the core problem; like the HRC's successful ethical-leadership discussions, it also creates a significant, less intimating and shared starting point for people to come together (diversity) to create solutions for the department and community (inclusiveness).

The committee chose to reflect the broad nature of the statement by opting to not include diversity in the title.

Munoz believes a new framework is needed to move both discussion and action on diversity and inclusion forward. "It's time we redefine both the problem and solution," said Munoz. "The heart of our problem is when we fail to recognize our fellow responders as human beings and treat them with the dignity they deserve. It's ironic, because so much of what we do as a profession is about preserving human dignity."

The position statement addresses traditional issues of race and gender that continue to plague the fire service. It also addresses issues that have previously been kept silent and that are now emerging more frequently, such as faith-based issues, sexual orientation and economic differences.

In its strategic plan a few years ago, the HRC decided to focus its efforts on preaching to the congregation to grow the choir and stop focusing so much energy on those who refuse to even come inside. It's a strategy that appears to be working.

"I think our work has definitely played a part in the increase of IAFC members stepping forward to be more proactive in creating more diverse and inclusive departments, but larger societal changes have helped as well. The IAFC, both through the committee and at the leadership level, has spent the last several years increasing attention on this issue," Munoz reported. "People know we're not just talking; we're also listening and we're acting. It's evident that many in the fire service are looking for answers, and the IAFC is going to be there help them find solutions."

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