A big room panel discussion at FDIC 2010 examined one of the most combustible issues in the fire service: diversity and discrimination. Moderated by Deputy Chief (Ret.) John K. Murphy of the Eastside (WA) Fire and Rescue, an attorney and regular on Fire Engineering's Fire Service Court podcast, the panel consisted of Cheryl Horvath, division chief of operations for the Northwest (AZ) Fire District; Lieutenant Joseph Muhammad of the White Plains (NY) Fire Department; and Lieutenant Frank Ricci of the New Haven (CT) Fire Department, who one a major Supreme Court decision regarding hiring and discrimination in his department.
Murphy began the panel by discussing the amount of legislation spawned by diversity problems in the fire service, and asked the audience to keep an open mind during the discussion. He asked members of the audience to introduce themselves to each other, to break the ice.
Each member then gave an introductory statement. Muhammad, who is president of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters (IABPFF), began with a history of that organization. He described how the organization began in response to some of the challenges faced by African-American firefighters of the Civil Rights era, and how affirmative-action legislative victories have caused some critics in recent times to begin wondering: When will the goals of affirmative-action policies be met (and, by implication, when will these policies end?)
Horvath, who was the keynote speaker on Wednesday at FDIC 2010, discussed the report The National Report Card on Women in Firefighting (available as a PDF at i-women.org), which states that women now represent around 3 percent of fire service members--a far lower percentage than in other occupations. She posed a question to fire chiefs: Do you really want women in the fire service? If so, Horvath said, you should want them for the right reasons, and not because you will be punished for not including them.
She also commented on Frank Ricci's FDIC 2010 keynote, delivered that morning, wondering how the energetic speech would have been perceived if it had been delivered by Muhammad or herself. She noted that the avalanche of discrimination lawsuits in the fire service was undermining the image of the fire service in the public perception, giving the impression of a service constantly waging internal wars.
Ricci focused on the issue of merit, and that discrimination is across the board, affecting white males as well as minorities and women. "We're all firefighters," Ricci said, "Discrimination is discrimination, and should not be tolerated."
The panel fielded questions about how their upbringing affected their perception of the fire service; how the Supreme Court decision might affect the testing process; and what a diverse fire service work force would look like. Throughout the generally civil discussion, Ricci hewed to the argument at a single standard, based on merit, should be the benchmark of proficiency in the fire service. Muhammad stated that, while merit matters, the lack of resources to expose youngsters in the inner city to the option of firefighting leaves them at a distinct disadvantage. Horvath suggested that we reevaluate what the job consists of, given the prevalence of EMS calls.
A female firefighter in the audience, addressing Ricci, took issue with his use of the word "equal." She pointed to the fact that, in her department, there was only a single bathroom, which made it difficult for her, especially when she was pumping after giving birth. Ricci conceded the point: in this situation, at the very least, inequality in the fire service persists.