Firefighter Training, Firefighting, Leadership

Formulating a Successful Diversity Strategy

By Efrain Baez

Picture this: You have a crew of fresh new recruits who just completed their firefighter/paramedic certification. You’ve invested countless hours making sure they are trained properly. The recruits get to the field and then, without notice, they leave after only six months on the job. Why? You don’t know why. They just decided to quit. Or maybe they didn’t quit. Maybe they decided to stay and gut it out, but they are not focused. And in this business, if firefighters are not focused, lives are at risk.

Why the blurry objective? Could it be a lack of training or a lack of leadership? Maybe they just realized that being a firefighter is not what it was cracked up to be. Chances are, the recruits were trained exceptionally well. Or maybe the recruits were harassed or discriminated against in a manner that made them feel as if they didn’t belong.

What Diversity Means to Fire/Rescue

You hear the word “diversity” thrown around every day, but do you really know what it means? When people think about diversity, the first thing that comes to mind is differences in race and ethnicity; in fact, it’s much more. Diversity in the workplace refers to all aspects that make people different from one another. In the fire service, diversity is extremely important. It not only means understanding and appreciating fellow firefighters’ cultural backgrounds, but also understanding their personality, listening, communication, and leadership styles. In other words, diversity means enhancing people’s understanding and reinforcing the organizational culture. Fostering an organizational culture that promotes understanding of differences is the backbone of a dynamic team. That’s why it is crucial for every fire department to have a diversity strategy built around the fire department’s core values to ensure success.

You need a diversity initiative.

Formulating a Strategy

A diversity initiative should focus on every aspect that makes an organization different. It can be designed and implemented in many ways; the most popular is a series of well-designed training sessions. The training should stress understanding, communication, and listening skills. Most conflicts arise because of a lack of communication and understanding. Alleviating these issues now will stop a potential problem from arising before it eats away at the organization’s morale. But, before anything can begin, the first thing you need is support from the top. If you want your fire department to take this initiative seriously, the members need to see that the fire chief is taking it seriously, too. One of the best ways to portray this message is to have the fire chief endorse the initiative by becoming actively involved in the implementation process. The best endorsement is to have the fire chief kick off a diversity training session. There is no need for a dog and pony show; just a few words of encouragement from a strong leader work wonders.

Once you have executive support, you can begin the designing phase. The best way to ensure success is to have a well-thought out strategy. With that said, before launching a plan, you must understand the department’s needs; this is crucial to the success of the initiative. Developing a survey that focuses on key diversity issues will give you a snapshot of where your organization stands. Be sure not to cross sensitive lines; this could turn your employees off immediately. The survey results will reveal valuable information on the key areas in which your department may need improvement. This newfound information should be the foundation of the training initiative.

Next, you must decide if you should bring in an experienced consultant to design and facilitate the training or if you should buy “off the shelf” training videos to teach your department how to be understanding. The last thing you want is to buy just any old training video for this subject. The most successful initiatives are those designed and implemented by a consultant or through an internal training personnel partnership. The design should be set as a conversational piece with plenty of experiential learning objectives to keep the initiative interesting and insightful, not as a standard classroom setting where one person talks and everyone else listens. Diversity is a sensitive subject that brings up delicate conversations and potentially opens up old wounds. An effective trainer should know how to handle these situations and bring closure to any issue. If the trainer doesn’t know how to effectively facilitate the session and manage the conversation, the training initiative will do more harm than good. It is crucial that the person in charge gauge the audience and manage the conversation in a way that enhances the audience’s understanding of differences, a skill that no video can achieve.

Once you know what type of training to conduct, consider how often the training is to be delivered. Although it would be ideal for an organization to facilitate this training on an annual basis, since some organizations have smaller budgets than others, a diversity initiative conducted once every two years would be more practical–one year for the initiative and another year to send out a new survey. The training program should be updated as much as possible. No one likes to sit through the same old and predictable training program. Revamping the survey every year is key in identifying the department’s ever-changing needs. If there is information reported in the survey that’s not currently in the training initiative, update the training to reflect the new needs. This way, you will always be in tune with the department’s needs. New firefighters arriving at the station should receive this training within two months of hire. This way, you can prevent them from forming undesirable habits before they become comfortable with their surroundings.

Who Will Drive the Diversity-Mobile?

Choosing the right person to lead this charge is difficult. Many organizations make the mistake of selecting an individual based solely on his excellent presentation skills. For a diversity initiative, you don’t need a trainer: You need a diversity champion. This person should possess not only excellent presentation skills but should also know the importance of understanding differences and be able to communicate effectively and connect with the audience. If there is no connection, the initiative will fail. This person needs to be someone internal with whom firefighters and top management feel comfortable. Most importantly, this person needs to be passionate about the initiative. Nothing will kill a perfectly good training session more than a facilitator who is not passionate about the training. The individual needs to be energetic, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable about the subject–a true champion of diversity.

Measure Results

The best way to know if you received a good return on your investment is to measure the impact your investment made on the intended audience. A good indicator is a comparison of employee-relations issues before the initiative and after the training was delivered. If the program was designed properly, you should see a decrease in the number of issues within your department. Making top management aware of this valuable information will help to further justify the existence of the program.

Whether you want to launch a diversity initiative as a result of an issue or because you want to be proactive, a diversity training program taken seriously will render the best results. Understanding differences will not only help firefighters work better together but will also enhance their personal lives. Making this initiative a norm within the organization will improve the overall morale of the unit as well as enhance the communication within its ranks–not to mention setting the example for new firefighters. Enforcing an organizational culture that supports the need to understand anything that is different from the norm for the better of the organization will enhance the culture’s overall perspective.

Efrain “Ricky” Baez Jr. is a human resources professional specializing in implementing diversity strategies for both public safety and private organizations. He is a four-year veteran of the United States Marine Corps and holds a Bachelor’s degree in business management. He is a professional member of the Society for Human Resource Management and is currently working on a Master of Human Resources degree from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

Email your questions or comments to Efrain at [email protected]