Firefighting, Health & Safety, Legal

Lessons Learned from the FDIC Diversity Panel

By John K. Murphy

It is an experience to moderate any panel, but to moderate one filled with high-powered leaders of their respective organizations and a member who won a Supreme Court case–that made my experience moderating the FDIC 2010 diversity panel especially memorable. Of course, I am talking about Chief Cheryl Horvath, Lt. Joseph Muhammad, and Lt. Frank Ricci

Then there was me–a Good Samaritan. When asked by the Fire Engineering (FE) staff to moderate this panel, I, of course, said yes. I’m a team player, with some reservations.

What was I going to say to these individuals who have lived the diversity issues their entire lives? One of my first reactions was to ask myself, “What can a boy from a white neighborhood with the map of Ireland all over his face (they used to be freckles; now, they’re age spots), who has gone to good schools and has an ample share of opportunities offer at this FDIC session without coming across like an idiot?” You have to understand my trepidation.

As a well-organized individual (almost to a fault, according to my wife), I set up a phone conference with my panel to “discuss the issues and break the ice.” It was like herding cats–lots of e-mails; busy panel members; and, after several weeks, finally agreement on a good time to talk. We met over the phone, I discussed my ideas for a panel format, and I suggested that each participant send me some good questions. I was thinking that we could begin with an opening statement from each participant, address the submitted questions, then field questions from the audience. We were going to be in the “BIG ROOM,” which is intimidating enough, but what a responsibility!   

The night before the panel discussion, I met with my panel members. They were kind, courteous, and friendly. They all knew each other, and now we were all friends. I thought: This is really going to go well, and I am at the tip of this diversity spear for at least 1 hour and 45 minutes.

The afternoon of the event, I assembled my panel–one member was missing. I called him and left a message; I was panicking. Do we start without him, or what? I delayed the start by a few minutes. Finally my anxiety won out. We started. Then, my third participant walks out from back stage, explaining that he was waiting for us back there. By now, sweat is beading out on my forehead.

“Welcome,” I say to the audience whose members are staring up at me as if I was going to cure the diversity issues in the fire service in the next hour or so.

One thing I learned about public speaking is that you have to get and keep the attention of the audience. I had a great speech all lined up and was ready to go. I launched into it as soon as the class room monitor told the attending firefighters how to leave the room in case of a fire. I induced a little laughter when I said, “It was like the end of the workday– just run like hell for the exits.” This was an icebreaker.

Then I had everyone stand up to introduce themselves to each other and to notice that we all do not look the same. We are different in so many ways, but we are also similar in so many other ways.

I went into those differences. The audience began to look at me with an expression that said, “We already know that; what else is different?” Ouch! It  was going as I expected–no fruit or vegetables were tossed my way.

I launched into my speech and was going great guns about how we need to respect each other, respect the laws of the land, and reviewed the unbelievable awards to those filing a lawsuit in our fire departments because some knucklehead violated someone’s civil rights–laws that have been in effect for more than 40 years, yet which we manage, almost every day, to violate.

I thought that I was doing well. But, as I looked out at my audience, I saw that I had lost them. They were not here to listen to me expound on the legal issues. They wanted to get to the meat of the issue. Their eyes were saying, “Let’s listen to the panel members.” 

The first panelist to speak was Lt. Joseph Muhammad, president of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters and a lieutenant with the White Plains (NY) Fire Department. What a great orator! The message he relayed was a great one of the past, the present, and the future of diversity in the fire service.

Next, was Chief Cheryl Horvath, president of the Board of Trustees for the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services. Chief Horvath’s presentation was related to her previous keynote presentation and about the issues facing women in the fire service. She’s a great orator as well.

Our final presenter was Lt. Frank Ricci (whose name I butchered about five times while moderating; Frank, I apologize for that) from the New Haven (CT) Fire Department. He is the only person I know whose issue was heard before the Supreme Court. Frank gave a fiery and emotional speech that morning, and he was ready to tackle the diversity issues that afternoon. His message was all about diversity and questioning why issues that should be followed under the law should have to be litigated. He pointed out that the issue of reverse discrimination should have never happened, but it did. Hopefully, he said, it will make us a better profession if we could only look at the person, talent, and skills that would create an efficient officer and firefighter. He also revealed that other groups in his department have brought forth collateral litigation and that the issues before the department are continuing to be resolved through court action.

Now came my turn as moderator again. I tossed out a couple of “softballs” like, “How does your upbringing and experience affect your perspective of diversity in the fire service?” Then came the little tougher questions about them personally–their race and gender, and the effect they have had on our profession. Then, I asked some really pointed questions. I questioned Chief Horvath about the National Report Card on Women in Firefighting and Lt. Muhammad about a posting on the Black Firefighters Web site, “Is recognizing diversity goals lowering standards in the fire service?” He handled that question very well and offered me the secret password to that Web site for the answer to that question and more.

We danced around the issue of the Supreme Court Decision (it is what it is, according to Lt. Ricci). Then, a member of the audience got up from her seat and challenged the statement from Lt. Ricci’s that there is “equality” in the fire service. Her issue is that in her station there is one bathroom and several male firefighters. She had some personal business to take care of and indicated that she needed to place a lock on the door of the bathroom to prevent male firefighters from entering the bathroom. That set off a brouhaha in her department and with the panel.

After the statement that there was “equality” in the fire service, she offered to “kick some ass” to prove her point. Quickly taking control, I indicated that there would be no fighting during this session and to take it outside. Whew, a crisis averted. Should have brought some boxing gloves – now there would have been some action that you don’t see very often.

We then asked the audience to submit questions on a 3×5 card. We responded to a few cards (time was a factor) and to several questions from the audience. The president from the Indianapolis International Association of Fire Fighters approached the microphone and gave the audience some information on how the Indianapolis Fire Department is achieving diversity and how it is overcoming many obstacles. A former professional football player, now a firefighter in Tennessee, got up and said that he is the only member of a minority group in his department and that he has had a lifelong dream of becoming a firefighter. He also indicated that he does not have a “problem” in his department. We had a couple of people tell their “stories.” As the moderator, I had to keep things moving to get to the questions.

Our time was up, and I was having such a good time. Bobby Halton got a microphone and thanked everyone for being there and reminded them that more work is needed to conquer this issue. The control room was signaling that were out of time. I made closing comments and wished everyone well and thanked the panel.

Afterwards, groups from the audience gathered around our panel members to ask more questions and to give congratulatory comments.

LESSONS LEARNED

So, what did I learn? Well, from my Navy days, I should have learned to never volunteer, but I’m a sucker for a kind comment from Diane Feldman and the FE staff. “Don’t worry,” they said; “you’ll do a great job.” I am sure that they had their fingers crossed.

I learned that preparation is the key. Meet your panel members beforehand if you don’t know them, get the questions clarified, and keep your presentation short. The audience is not there to hear you. You are the conductor of a fine symphony, so get out of the way.

This opportunity also reinforced my experience of having a group of great people in our profession. Of course there are problems, but there are also great people who dedicate their lives to solving those problems for our profession. They cannot do it alone. This is a team effort, so join the team and make diversity issues a thing of the past. I was happy that I could be a small part of that effort.

Chief Horvath asked in closing, “Why are we still talking about this?” Good question. Is there an answer? Yes, there is. It is in you.

As far as moderating a panel is concerned, it’s like hopping out of the frying pan and into the fire–a little hot, and then it becomes a part of you. Give it a shot if you are asked. I will be more than happy to help you feel better about your choice.

Thank you, Fire Engineering staff. I’ll volunteer next year as well – I’m such a glutton for punishment.

John K. Murphy has been a career member of the fire service for 32 years, retiring as a deputy fire chief with Eastside (WA) Fire & Rescue in Issaquah, Washington, and fire chief of the City of Sammamish (WA). He is an attorney whose focus is on employment practices liability, policy, internal investigations, and firefighter health and safety. He is an expert witness and consultant on risk management for private and public entities. He lectures and writes on fire service topics related to company officer operations, organizational liability, and personnel issues.