Firefighter Training, Firefighting, Leadership

Diversity in the Fire Service: A Problem or a Solution?

BY JOHN J. McNEIL

The concept of diversity in the fire service can be thought of in different ways. Diversity considerations can range from cultural (nationality, religion, and language) to subcultural (age, gender, and community) to individual (personal traits and learning styles). Perspectives regarding the impact of diversity in the fire service vary from causing adversity and ineffectiveness in the organization to providing a position of strength and success through collective intelligence. No matter what your perspective may be on diversity, it is an issue that can evoke emotions.

THE PROBLEM

Some perceive diversity in the fire service as a management nightmare. The idea of bringing together people of different nationalities, languages, religious beliefs, ages, genders, sexual orientation, and personalities to work effectively and accomplish something seems to be impossible and ridiculous. The diversification of members within an organization can be further complicated and convoluted by mixtures of cultures within cultures such as African-American Catholic or gay Asian. The potential cultural barriers in the fire service seem to be insurmountable. Conflicts and misunderstandings caused by different languages, cultural idiosyncrasies, learning styles, education levels, and religious beliefs could paralyze a department or make it ineffective.

To further complicate the issue of ensuring diversity in an organization, the strategy of hiring more minorities to balance out the organization’s membership only seems to complicate matters even more. A survey conducted in 1993 by L.H. Research for the National Conference of Christians and Jews found that black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans resent one another almost as much as they do Caucasians. It seems that perhaps it would make better sense to hire a homogeneous group of members or employees to work together within an organization and avoid all of the miscommunication and cultural barriers diversity creates and that impede productivity and efficiency. Perhaps the intent of the concept of promoting diversity in the workplace could be summed up in the words of George Schuyler, author of Black No More:

Like most men with a vision, a plan, a program or a remedy, he fondly imagined a person to be intelligent enough to accept a good thing when it was offered to them, which was conclusive evidence that he knew little about the human race.

To complicate matters further, many fire service leaders mistakenly believe that lowering the various fire service hiring standards is necessary to attain diversity in their department. This lowering of standards creates resentment in incumbent firefighters and concern for firefighter safety as well as diminishes the highly respected firefighter status.

The problematic perspective of diversity in an organization presents legitimate concerns regarding the hiring for diversity as well as the barriers and ensuing negative repercussions that result from differences in language, age, culture, religious belief, nationality, sexual orientation, and gender. These barriers, intermingled with personal bias and the prejudices of organization members, can ultimately affect an organization’s communication and effectiveness.

THE ADVANTAGE

Others perceive diversity in the fire service as the means of survival in a growing diverse country. The leveraging of diversity can mean using cultural differences to accomplish organizational goals not feasible in a culturally homogeneous department. It would seem to make tremendous sense for fire departments to seek a diverse workforce to eliminate language and cultural barriers that might otherwise exist with the diverse communities they now seek to serve. The collective intelligence of a diverse organization allows for many perspectives and different strengths in effectively meeting the department’s goals.

Just as a government and its elected officials and leadership should reflect the demographics of their constituents to ensure that all are represented in decision making, so, too, it is important that government agencies, such as the fire service, be representative of the citizens they serve. The demographics of the service providers should be such that the citizens feel that their culture, language, and beliefs are respected and understood when they are in need of services. It is interesting to note when discussing diversity in services provided by the public sector that public safety, and particularly the fire service, remains significantly behind in diversity in the workforce. As a member of the fire service, I believe that addressing the issue of diversity is one of the greatest challenges or complicated issues a chief faces today.

According to 2003 U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the fire service workforce was the least diverse of any protective service occupation. According to information reported about the protective services, which includes police officers, security officers, and firefighters, firefighters have the lowest percentages of employed women and African Americans and the second lowest percentage of employed Asians and Hispanics.

A positive perspective on diversity in the fire service presents legitimate advantages relative to the very same barriers presented by the problematic perspective. Based on my research, I believe that the information presented on the two perspectives pertaining to the impact of diversity in organizations is accurate. It is the responsibility of the organization’s leaders to meet the challenges diversity in the workplace might present to obtain the advantages diversity could offer.

THE CHALLENGE OF LEADERS

Achieving diversity in the fire service requires that fire service leaders commit seriously to actively recruit in arenas that will provide qualified minority applicants without lowering any standards. College campuses, the military service (experienced members), and fitness/wellness centers are examples of potential sources of qualified and successful firefighter applicants. Additionally, leaders and recruiters have to be willing to approach minorities with an equally positive and personal approach in recruitment as was used in recruiting the incumbent firefighters. An equally serious effort must be provided in the form of a mentoring program prior to the physical ability testing for both men and women. This will increase the prospect of success for applicants who may struggle in the physical ability aspect of the hiring process without compromising the standard.

Many leaders of America’s fire service grew up in segregated communities and had limited opportunity to interact with different cultures or peoples. Many have internalized all the stereotypical beliefs about race, gender, sexual orientation, and nationality that exist in society and the organizations. The leaders themselves are part of the challenge and are not properly prepared to address the issues that might exist in a diverse workforce in fire service organizations in the future. The dramatic changes and challenges of diversity entail integration of all workers based on not only social justice but also the need to effectively meet the community’s needs.

Fire service leaders must embrace diversity and recognize its importance. They should assess their attitudes, assumptions, and feelings about people who differ from them and the effect of these beliefs on their effectiveness as leaders. They must work to change any negative attitudes—theirs and others’. They can accomplish this through networking and exposure to people of different backgrounds. Leaders should learn to engage and use the contributions and talents of the culturally diverse members inside and outside their organization. In doing this, they will serve as models for their members. The behavior leaders demonstrate will in turn begin to change not only their negative attitudes and misconceptions but also those of their members. After assessing their attitudes and behaviors, the leaders should assess the organization’s readiness to meet the challenges of diversity and build an attitude that illustrates a degree of readiness to accept a culturally diverse organization.

Leaders who are familiar with the various approaches to changing antidiversity attitudes are better able to manage diversity. As a point of information, usually employing logic is not effective in changing the attitude. It is difficult to find examples that show a change in an antidiversity attitude that came about as a result of a logical argument or additional information. It has been found, instead, that the employees tend to hide their attitudes and pretend to have been converted.

Diversity training can help begin the process of leaders and department members’ meeting the challenge. Classroom demonstration, work groups, problem analysis, role playing, and video presentations are useful techniques in diversity workshops. These techniques help members to understand differences among cultures. It is preferable and less contentious in an organization when the leaders and members are prepared and committed to the value of a diverse organization before the organization’s diversification. Nonetheless, if a department is already diverse and struggling with these challenges, it is never too late to begin the process of understanding and accepting the importance of diversity in an organization. It is imperative that the leaders assist members with diverse backgrounds to succeed, recruit, and promote a diverse workforce and use the potential and talents derived from diversity.

The challenge of diversity in the fire service does not end with the acceptance of minority hiring but continues on throughout your career with equal opportunity in promotions, assignments, and a harassment-free environment. Accountability of officers and supervisors in the commitment to bias-free performance-based treatment of all subordinates must be maintained through chief officers’ monitoring their performance. Fire service leaders should immediately address bias behaviors based on such stereotypes such as gender, race, nationality, or religion in hiring, assignments, promotions, or daily duties and life in the firehouse or workplace in a manner so that others can see the intolerance for such inappropriate behavior.

Leaders face challenges when introducing or addressing diversity, but their success is critical to the success of the organization. The strength of an organization rests in its greatest resource—its people. Leadership cannot accomplish any of the organizational goals without the employees’ uniting to accomplish the work. The more talent, skills, perspectives, insight, knowledge, and abilities acquired through diversity, the stronger and more effective and competitive the organization will be. In our multicultural society, positively integrating this necessary diverse workforce and meeting the inherent challenges are the duties of leadership.

JOHN J. McNEIL retired as deputy chief from the Atlanta (GA) Fire Rescue Department, where he served 27 years. During his tenure, he served as deputy chief of the Technical Services Division, assistant chief of training, and battalion chief; he has 20 years of experience in field operations. While assistant chief of training, McNeil was responsible for the hiring and training of fire recruits for the department.