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Executive Officer Leadership: Are We Killing Our Own Diversity?

Every fire department has their notable firsts. Most members know the year these firsts occurred: the year the department was established, the year it became unionized, the year the first ladder truck was purchased and many more firsts.

Firsts are important to the history of the fire department. It’s what gives us roots and binds us to the tradition of the fire service.

What about the year the first black or female firefighter was hired? Are those important firsts in your department? It’s an interesting conversation based on where your department is with diversity.

Diversity—there’s that word again. Is anyone else getting tired of hearing that word?

Let’s go back to the title of this article, “Are We Killing Our Own Diversity?”

Here’s my theory: We all know departments that have gone to great lengths to market, recruit and hire diverse candidates. What happens after we hire females, Asians, Native Americans, lesbians, Hispanics, transsexuals or whatever demographic makes your department diverse? We send them through recruit school, put them in the fire stations to begin a year of probation and support them as they hopefully grow and mature in their 30-year career.

One of the challenges we face as an industry is how our departments address diversity from the inside. Will it matter if we bring in diverse members if we don’t allow them to be diverse? Are we bringing in the correct candidate and killing our own diversity once we get them in the door?

I’m asking these questions because the topic of diversity has to be about something more than the word diversity. It has to be about people and individuals. It has to be about what the organization and leadership are willing to do to create an environment of acceptance to cultivate diversity on the inside of the organization.

We can’t continue to plant new seeds in the same soil where they won’t grow. We have to till the soil, to prepare it for new seeds to be cultivated.

My theory continues: If I’m the lucky, diverse member who has recently graduated from recruit school, I want to be the perfect probationary member in the field. We all do. I want to study hard, train harder and perform every task perfectly so I can make my officer and crew proud. I continue to work my way through my probationary shifts.

I’m terrified, excited, exhausted, overwhelmed, proud and all the other emotions that come with the stress of passing probation.

Am I allowed to be myself, or diverse, or share my different opinions? If I were to cook a gluten-free, vegan meal for my crew because that’s something diverse about me, would that be welcomed and accepted, or would it be shunned?

Many members would argue that the first year on the job is the most important. It’s where you get your reputation for the next 30 years. Again, I come back to the question, Are we killing our own diversity?

My example of food isn’t the core of diversity, but firefighters know food is important in our culture for bonding. A crew that is excited to try a new food and welcome a new practice is accepting of diversity. Are we spending their first year molding good recruits and probationary members but then don’t allow them to be who they are: gluten-free vegans?

Have we eliminated the element of diversity in our department at the expense of conforming because that’s what it takes to pass probation or be accepted?

Fear is a powerful emotion. Fear of not fitting in, fear of failing, fear of not meeting someone’s expectations. Our newest members are focused on passing probation and meeting the fire service’s expectations. I wonder how much of a member’s diversity has been put aside during their probationary period for fear of losing their job or not being accepted.

If we suppress diversity in the first crucial year of becoming a firefighter, are we truly ready to embrace and utilize diversity in our departments? You can be tired of the word diversity, but you must not be tired of the concept.

Try the chickpea-quinoa-tofu burger. You never know; you just may like it.


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