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Diversity Is So Close and Yet So Far

We know that debate related to diversity has been raging across our country—not only in our firehouses, but also in industry, schools and neighborhoods—for too many years. And yet, there still isn’t a bright-line answer.

We also realize that this issue of diversity has sought an equality solution through legislation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its various amendments, the formation of EEOC, the creation of department policy and education, and, when that all fails to be effective, litigation.

A rich history, with laws and policies set in place, offers some guidance about how we should treat each other. We should be able to see how this continual conflict divides us as a nation and an industry. So why are we still discussing these issues? Because, as an industry, we still don’t have it right.

The Same in Different Ways

The world is changing all around the fire and emergency service and we need to embrace those changes, adapt and possibly reinvent ourselves to continue to provide a high level of community service.

If we look around, we’ll recognize that in many ways we’re the same in a different sort of way. Our gender, color and religious beliefs are different. We’re short, tall, lean and not so lean. Our educations vary. Yet the common denominator between us is that we’re all firefighters on a singular mission. In spite of this common ground, what continues to divide us?

Diversity creates an opportunity for new ideas and an equal opportunity for conflict, particularly in a career that prides itself on tradition. Tradition plus diversity doesn’t always equal conflict, but the fire-department environment offers additional potential stressors to the equation.

As fire stations become a hyped-up microcosm of everyday life, beliefs and behaviors, we learn to tolerate differences in the normal workday, but old stereotypes, unconscious behaviors and occupational stress collide in volatile ways when living with coworkers for 24-hour shifts.

Two Paths

When people of color and women began entering the fire service in significant numbers in 1970s, there were those who began to organize for change in behavior and made an effort to create a culture of acceptance. While change was slow all around, it essentially divided departments into two camps: those that willingly changed (sometimes only after some department leaders retired) and those that were forced to change because of litigation or other pressure.

Litigation is a powerful motivator—many departments have incorporated diversity only after legal-consent decrees from federal courts mandated affirmative action and other diversity programs.

On the other hand, many other departments led the way to diversity and inclusiveness long before affirmative action became widespread; they have benefited from years of successful programs. These departments welcomed the changes sparked by integration, and they applaud the improvements they see as fire operations become safer and the firehouse a supportive and more trusting environment.

Courage on All Fronts

While some departments have excelled in creating inclusive departments, efforts dealing with human resources will never be perfect. As leaders, we must have the courage to demand and strive for excellence; we must create an environment where it can be achieved and have the conviction to act when those around us fall short of the expectation.

Sexism, racism and other forms of “isms” along with discrimination and harassment continue to be obstacles for career and volunteer firefighters and a challenge to leadership. According to a report by the International Association of Women in the Fire and Emergency Service, many women, people of color and minorities leave the fire and emergency service—sometimes in the midst of successful careers—to avoid daily harassment, isolation and scrutiny. In what is already a high-stress profession, these added negative factors can take their toll.

How will out industry move forward into the future—how will we create the innovation we need to overcome today’s mounting challenges—if great people and great ideas are walking out the door?

What Can Be Done?

After all this time and energy, many people look at diversity and say, “It is what it is.” What we need to ask is, “Is it what it could be?” The answer is no.

So what do we do now?

Address the elephants in the room – Yes, there is more than one elephant, and we’ve been ignoring several for years. The elephants are the racial, gender, religious, sexual preferences and just “different-people” intolerances that plague our profession. We must tackle diversity and inclusiveness head-on, which means we must have the courage to talk frankly and take on sacred cows.

Work collectively with other organizations working through diversity issues in our profession to provide resources and model practices for achieving a diverse workforce.

Be willing to look at other professions to evaluate their model practices in achieving diversity and inclusiveness. It’s important that we don’t reinvent the wheel or take two steps backwards in our task.

Say “no” and “stop” – They’re the easiest—and often the hardest—words to say, but every member of our teams, from the fire chief to the newest rookie, must be empowered to step in when they see something wrong. These simple words can be the first steps to cultural change.

Take what’s best in our culture and traditions and build on it – Change doesn’t mean we need to leave our culture and traditions behind; they’re critical foundations for making the fire and emergency service stronger and more effective. And what are diversity and inclusion efforts about? The old concept of the melting pot has changed to one of a salad bowl, where each element retains its own identify, but contributes its unique flavor to the strength and quality of the dish.

Diversity is what we should strive to accomplish in our firehouses, and it is achievable in our lifetime. As leaders, it should be our mission to place into our ranks and firehouses those staff and personnel who reflect the diversity of our communities and to implement policies and procedures that embrace diversity and inclusiveness.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "I do not wish my house to be walled on all sides and my windows stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible."

Let’s open the windows of our fire stations and let the winds of all cultures blow about freely. It will only improve our service and may blow the dust of discrimination out the window.

John Murphy, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO, retired as a deputy fire chief and is a practicing attorney focusing on employment practices liability, training safety, employment policy, forensic evaluation on fire and EMS operations and internal investigations and consulting on risk management for private and public entities. He’s a member of the IAFC Human Relations Committee.

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