BY BILL LOWE, EMT-P, Ph.D., AND BARRY BARNES, Ph.D.
The fire service as a profession faces numer-ous opportunities and challenges for addressing the emerging and highly emotional issue of diversity. This mission-critical issue demands discussion, experimentation, tolerance, and consensus building by fire service leaders. This article summarizes an applied case analysis of a fire department’s organizational culture and strives to assess the department’s ability to manage its emerging community and employee diversity.1
This research project aims to assist senior chiefs to manage diversity for their departments’ long-term benefit. As a result, fewer resources will be expended for nonvalue-added activities such as lawsuits and employee grievances and more resources can be devoted to improving the quality and quantity of emergency services. The expectation is a candid review of this department’s culture that will identify supporting, hindering, and neutral elements that influence diversity management.
A review of published newspaper headlines underscores the seriousness and scope of the fire service diversity conflicts, which justify this case analysis. While the departments’ identities have been kept confidential, many firefighters are aware of similar incidents: “Firefighter horseplay gets out of hand.” “Female firefighter wants privacy.” “Shakeup will be beneficial: Top aide demoted for failing to end offensive language after complaint.” “Fire chief suspended: 15-day suspension began on Monday.” “Fire lieutenant wins $300,000 over harassment.” “Fire chief vows better race relations: Fire department seeking minorities.”
At the annual National Fire Service Leadership Summit held in Washington, DC, Ronald Morales, president of the National Association of Hispanic Firefighters (NAHF), posed this question for the conference attendees (2000): “How can the fire service as a whole tackle all of its missions-including diversity-with its limited resources?”
International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Executive Director Garry Briese (2000) commented during the conference: “It’s important to realize that minority groups are going to speak their minds aggressively because, quite frankly, that’s the only way the fire service pays them any attention. We have to figure out a way to address their valid concerns as we address other fire service issues.”2
This case analysis examines a fire department as a representative model of a “typical” fire department. Although the department’s identity is being kept confidential (identifying endnotes are also withheld), these diversity lessons can be applied to other fire departments. The department is a fully paid career organization that offers its citizens an array of services including emergency medical services, fire suppression, inspection, public education, and fire training academy.
The department’s attrition rate is relatively low, demonstrating employees’ satisfaction with their working conditions and officers. However, the low turnover has created a situation whereby minority firefighters represent approximately 7 percent of the department’s employees. Only in the past few years has the community’s dramatic population shift highlighted the department’s lack of diversity representation.
This fire department gradually increased its employees’ diversity characteristics, but the community’s diversity has changed much more dramatically in the past decade. In fact, a recent article characterized the community as “the most diverse county in the state, being populated by a mixture of people who have brought with them their many cultural differences …. In recent years, the county has become a crossroad for many cultures speaking more than 40 languages and dialects.”
Demographic projections estimate the community is 69 percent white, 27 percent black, and 4 percent primarily Hispanic and Asian. Perhaps the most revealing demographic statistic is the community’s public school’s enrollment, which is 74 percent minority. The explanation for this is that the community’s emerging minority population is made up of younger families with children, and the more tenured citizens are older white families with fewer school-age children. The U.S. Census Report establishes that the community’s minority population increased 400 percent in the preceding 10-year period.
The challenges and opportunities for the community and its fire department are in acknowledging that demographic profiles are changing. Consequently, more dialogue and interest in addressing emerging diversity issues will strengthen the citizens’ perception that their fire department provides quality emergency services and employs a diverse workforce that is more representative of the community. However, a demographic researcher offers the following projection for the community: “Demographic trends normally occur at the speed of a retaining wall, but this one has occurred fairly quickly …. You’re going to see some necessary changes in leadership. That means black politicians, black principals, black educators. We’ve seen, historically, that those kinds of changes can be painful.”
DIVERSITY ISSUES SUGGEST A SYSTEMS APPROACH
The overall objective of diversity management is to improve the fire department’s ability to save citizens’ lives. Diversity management is an important issue for fire departments: Citizens must feel their firefighters understand and respect diversity. Citizens reasonably expect that their specific diversity is represented among their firefighters. Departments that fail to embrace diversity risk losing the confidence and support of the citizens and the elected officials.
Diversity encompasses many attributes. A review of the relevant literature establishes the following commonly accepted definition of diversity: It exists in a group or organization when its members differ from one another along one or more important dimensions of age, gender, and ethnicity. Identifying and addressing these diversity dimensions are critical first steps for decreasing diversity conflicts and increasing organizational efficiency.
Several demographic trends influence age as a continuing diversity factor. It is common knowledge that post-World War II Baby Boomers are approaching retirement age, but three other age dimensions are also present: (1) Declining birth rates are resulting in fewer new entrants to the workforce; (2) Vast improvements in the quality and accessibility of health care are increasing the number of years workers can physically perform their tasks; and (3) The government is gradually extending the legal retirement age before workers can receive benefits. As a result of these age factors, tomorrow’s firefighters will be a little older and, presumably, a little slower.
It’s apparent more women are successfully pursuing fire service careers, and their numbers will only increase. By 2006, researchers expect women will represent 47.4 percent of the workforce. The challenge for the fire service is to acknowledge and address the “glass ceiling effect,” whereby women’s firefighting career advancements are based strictly on merit, not gender.
The impact of the “glass ceiling” is realized in a recent vocational survey that found females represent 45 percent of managers but only 0.2 percent or 2 out of 1,000 chief executive officer positions. Two explanations for the “glass ceiling” include (1) a general reluctance to promote females, especially in traditional male-dominated jobs such as firefighting; and (2) women’s voluntarily suspending their careers for children. Firefighters-male and female-should not have to choose between their career goals and their children.
The gender dimension is going to result in an increase in the number of female firefighters in the very near future. Developing flexible and supportive leave programs for both male and female firefighters offers opportunities for retaining and advancing employees’ careers. Leave programs would address issues such as childbirth, child adoption, caring for ill children and parents, and education leaves. Fire departments operate around the clock, so why must ALL line personnel work the SAME shift? A little flexibility for hybrid shifts, whereby some line personnel work 24/48 and others work 10- or 14-hour shifts, would diminish the negative aspects of line assignments.
Demographic projections offer one certainty-the number of white firefighters is going to decrease as the United States’ white population decreases to 73 percent by 2006, down from around 80 percent in 1986. Consequently, the numbers of black, Hispanic, and Asian firefighters are going to increase dramatically. It is projected that by 2006, blacks will have a slight increase in population, to 10.6 percent; Hispanics will almost double to 11.6 percent; and Asians will almost double to represent 4.8 percent of the nation’s population.3
Labor Department Projections
A United States Department of Labor study, Workforce 2000, offers numerous diversity implications for the nation’s fire departments: Eighty percent of new employees will be minorities, including women. The mean age of workers will be 39 years old. There will be fewer new, young workers, and a significant number of these young workers will lack high school diplomas. As a result of these workforce changes, fire departments are going to have to be aggressive in recruiting, training, retaining, and motivating personnel.
DIVERSITY IN PUBLIC SAFETY: AN INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVE
Diversity issues are not isolated to just the fire service. Diversity challenges and opportunities are also demanding action by other public safety agencies, such as law enforcement. For example, a United Kingdom law enforcement report, Ethnic Minorities in the Police Service (1996), offers excellent viewpoints on the importance of public safety diversity initiatives applicable to the fire service4: “All organizations need to exploit the talents and abilities of all their members. This cannot be done without a culture which welcomes, uses, and manages diversity in the workplace …. A workforce which reflects the society it serves provides an unrivalled source of accurate, unbiased management information and helps make policing the community more responsive and appropriate.”
DIVERSE APPLICANT POOLS RESULT IN INCREASED TALENT POOLS
The State of Wisconsin recently restructured its entire civil service recruitment process to “enable Wisconsin public service to recruit and hire the skilled, committed, and diverse workforce state government needs to provide high-quality services to Wisconsin’s citizens.”5 Managing for diversity demands that progressive fire chiefs make it a way of thinking and not just a way of reacting to internal and external influences.
Many diversity programs ultimately fail because managers are concerned with increasing diversity but not managing diversity. “The goal of diversity is not to count people but to benefit from the best mix of people. The goal of diversity is to attract people with an array of talents, experiences, and perspectives, and then to empower them to give everything they’ve got in order to attain business objectives.”6
Diversity management must become institutionalized within a fire department’s culture; it should not be just a paragraph in a mission statement or a policy manual. This concept is critical because the core principle of diversity management is that all employees have the opportunity to utilize their specific talents to maximum advantage. Literally, lives depend on firefighters’ ability to contribute to their department’s public safety goals and objectives. (6)
FIRE SERVICE TRADITIONS: BARRIERS TO DIVERSITY MANAGEMENT?
The mission demands of firefighters who risk their lives responding to emergency situations tend to create a closed society. “Outsiders” are not easily accepted into what primarily has been a white, male-dominated fire service workforce. People are just naturally more comfortable being around others who look and act like themselves, especially when these coworkers share similar life-threatening situations. Diversity management strives to acknowledge individual talents, not reinforce group stereotypes.
The 1995 article “Firefighting Women and Sexual Harassment” provides insight into the scope of diversity acceptance within fire departments. The research data were based on questionnaires completed by 206 female firefighters from 37 fire departments. The authors found that “over half of the sampled female firefighters (58.2 percent) reported sexual harassment.” Statistical analysis found sexually harassed respondents did not differ from nonharassed coworkers by age, education, or marital status.7
This research shows the importance of fire department officers who are trained and intolerant of diversity harassment. For instance, “of the 120 sexually harassed respondents, over half (58.3 percent) did not notify their superiors.” According to the respondents’ comments, many did not report the harassment for the following reasons: Their supervisors knew about the behavior and remained silent, or the supervisors were participants in the harassment. (7)
Furthermore, the report noted that “when supervisors were informed about the complaint, they did not take any formal action in 66 percent of the incidents.” Fire officers must be educated in preventing and addressing harassment issues. Creating or tolerating a hostile work environment is morally and legally wrong. Operational consequences of harassment are decreased individual and group productivity, increased stress, and job turnover. Sexual harassment must be viewed as a specific example of a broader problem: failure to manage diversity. (7)
This applied fire service research project sought to answer two questions:
- Will the fire department’s culture support or hinder efforts to manage its emerging employee and community diversity?
- What actions can be taken today to improve the department’s culture for supporting tomorrow’s efforts to institute a management approach to diversity?
In searching for a structure for conducting this applied case analysis, the researchers selected a diversity management model developed by Dr. Roosevelt Thomas.8 This model addresses the following four steps:
- Examine the department’s corporate roots.
- Identify those cultural elements that are fundamental, the “roots” from which corporate behaviors develop.
- Determine whether the identified roots support or hinder aspirations for managing diversity.
- Change the cultural roots hindering diversity management efforts.
A preliminary cultural audit was conducted using a short questionnaire supplemented by structured and unstructured interviews on a random sample of line officers and firefighters. Thomas’s model recommends that the cultural audit capture data from roughly 20 percent of the population. This objective was obtained, ensuring that a broad sense of ownership was represented. Personnel were assured that their responses would be anonymous, and most respondents completed the questionnaire and interview within 30 to 45 minutes.
Respondents’ Demographic Characteristics
The respondents were 78 percent white males and 22 percent minorities. An interesting demographic characteristic is that white males self-reported their mean length of service as eight years and minority respondents self-reported their mean length of service as four years. This fire department, like most fire departments, places a huge promotional value on seniority, offering employees with more tenure presumably more promotional opportunities.
CULTURAL AUDIT FINDINGS
A comprehensive analysis/audit of the qualitative and quantitative data identifies six fundamental cultural roots influencing the department’s ability to initiate a diversity management process. These cultural roots are subtle, and often unrecognized, influences on the department’s officers and firefighters. Diversity management can be difficult to measure, so positive accomplishments can be difficult to recognize. Cultural changes take years to engrain themselves, and what took years can be lost quickly.
- Root One: Firefighters are focused on serving the community’s public safety needs. This root supports the department’s aspirations for managing diversity and provides the foundation for managing diversity initiatives. The department’s chiefs, officers, and firefighters understand diversity management is in their best interests as well as the best interest of public safety performance. The research analysis established strong agreement among both white and minority firefighters that personnel must work together for effective team performance.
Officers and firefighters evaluated training division officers with above-average scores on the overall quality of departmental training. The analysis suggests employee confidence in their training officers is high. This factor is critical because diversity management demands that the department offer more diversity-related and management development curriculums.
- Root Two: The fire department operates as a family unit. This root hinders the department’s aspirations for managing diversity. The disadvantages of a family unit model in which the fire chief is viewed as the “daddy” and senior chiefs are viewed as “aunts” and “uncles” is that families tend to require each member to assimilate into the family unit. Consequently, this subtle emphasis on assimilation makes it difficult for members with differing diversity characteristics to become accepted into the family unit: “If you want to ‘fit’ in with our family, you will have to change those aspects that don’t fit into our existing family’s value and culture system.”
This “family” model is typical within the nation’s 33,000 fire departments that operate as paramilitary organizations. Individual fire stations function as parts of the department’s extended family, which results in company officers’ assuming a paternal role over subordinates. Family members quickly establish their roles, identities, and rewards for assimilating into individual shift or station cultures.
- Root Three: Promotional rules unintentionally restrict employees’ talents. The results of the analysis suggest this root hinders the department’s aspirations for managing diversity. Civil service board rules unintentionally restrict employees from transferring between divisions such as fire suppression, EMS, inspections, and training without competing and passing promotional tests. For instance, a line captain cannot transfer to a staff training captain’s position without taking a promotional test. The difficulty here is tests are given infrequently because of budget constraints and limited vacancies. Although the fire chief can make administrative appointments, there are no property rights to these positions, meaning a fire sergeant appointed as a training lieutenant must return to the original rank if other employment events require a change.
- Root Four: Employees possess high levels of satisfaction with department and supervisors. This root supports the department’s aspirations for managing diversity. The cultural audit found employees respect their supervisors and support the department’s efforts for ensuring a professional work environment. The senior chiefs are improving the quantity and quality of management and diversity educational programs.
- Root Five: Mentoring for minority employees is less than for white employees. This root hinders the department’s aspirations for managing diversity. The cultural audit found 71 percent of white employees report having fire service mentors during their careers, but only 29 percent of minority employees report fire service mentoring experiences. The researchers conclude minority employees are not provided the same mentoring opportunities as white employees; thus, a more formalized mentoring program would be helpful.
Two explanations for this mentoring inequity are (1) White employees are more likely to have more seniority and presumably longer to develop relationships than the department’s minority employees; and (2) 58 percent of white employees report mentoring coworkers, whereas only 14 percent of minority employees acknowledge being mentors. Research generally suggests mentors are more likely to counsel a person with similar qualities, so minority employees are presumably more likely to mentor other minority employees.
- Root Six: Departmental recruitment team. Results of the analysis suggest this root is neutral and neither supports nor hinders the department’s aspirations for managing diversity. The fire department’s effort at developing a recruitment team is a neutral rating because of the limited involvement of line personnel. Line personnel are not compensated for their off-duty appearances at events such as job fairs and employment conferences.
Although there is some departmental financial support for specific events, the recruitment team lacks dedicated funds for developing annual performance goals. The absence of a dedicated office, voicemail, an e-mail address, and Web site links is a factor limiting the recruitment team’s ability to solicit and interact with applicants. Additionally, the recruitment team lacks specific and measurable goals and objectives for measuring progress. The preceding issues are significant constraints for achieving measurable data justifying the team’s recruitment efforts.
RESEARCH QUESTION ONE
Will the fire department’s culture support or hinder efforts to manage its emerging employee and community diversity?
The fire department’s cultural assessment identified two supporting roots for advancing employee and community diversity initiatives: (1) Firefighters are focused on serving the community’s public safety needs, and (2) employees possess high levels of satisfaction with the department and their supervisors.
The fire department’s cultural assessment identified three hindering roots restricting employee and community diversity initiatives: (1) The fire department operates as a family unit, (2) promotional rules unintentionally restrict employees’ talents, and (3) mentoring contacts for minority employees are fewer than for white employees.
Finally, the fire department’s cultural assessment identified one neutral root neither supporting nor hindering employee and community diversity initiatives-Root Six: Departmental recruitment team.
After reviewing the cultural research data, the answer to this research question is perhaps. The department’s personnel are receptive to learning and possess the personal motivation to work and play well together. Officers and firefighters understand they quite literally place their lives in their coworkers’ hands. Critical to advancing diversity initiatives is improving the scope and quantity of management and leadership education. Also, whereas employees’ informal mentoring reaches the majority of white employees, it was found minority employees lack similar mentoring relationships.
RESEARCH QUESTION TWO
What actions can be taken today to improve the department’s culture for supporting tomorrow’s efforts to institute a management approach to diversity?
The answer to this research question was obtained using a small focus group of this department’s line personnel. The focus group developed the following recommendations addressing the six cultural roots identified in the organizational audit:
- Build employee acceptance. The focus group agreed diversity initiatives must concentrate on building on the fire department’s values and vision by appealing to issues important to firefighters. The employees’ self-reporting their personal safety concerns and strong public safety commitment are two areas of strong agreement. Consequently, chiefs should link the department’s diversity management goals and objectives with higher personnel safety and improved emergency scene performance. Failing to promote new programs without considering how employees will view the programs will likely increase resistance and decrease acceptance.
- Visible commitment by senior chiefs. According to the focus group, a review of change strategies shows employees frequently view management’s new programs with skepticism, which results in both passive and aggressive resistance techniques. Throughout our lives, we have all been exposed to countless ideas that supposedly were going to solve our problems. But generally, programs designed by a few managers and mandated to many employees without their input will fail. People just naturally resist ideas when they are told instead of involved.
Senior chiefs must involve all levels of employees in problem-solving discussions for all organizational issues including diversity. Chiefs must gather the department’s formal and informal leaders to debate ideas and develop a consensus approach to addressing issues. Furthermore, chiefs must carefully consider their ability and willingness to extend their long-term commitment to issues. Chiefs cannot expect subordinates to change behaviors overnight when their chiefs have already moved onto the next crisis.
- Increase intradepartmental communication. Research on organizational change regularly establishes the importance of increasing intradepartmental communication. During times of stress, anxiety, and emotion, employees need to be kept informed. Officers who ignore subordinates’ information needs should expect less cooperation and more rumors. The only reliable strategy for reducing grapevine communication is ensuring that the official internal communication system is effective and efficient.
Although many fire departments have officers responsible for disseminating information to the public, few departments have formal responsibility assigned for internal communications. If employees are regularly introduced to new fire department programs by reading the community’s newspapers, there is a problem with the department’s internal communication system. Effective communication demands using an array of methods, such as face-to-face meetings, written memos, computer bulletin board announcements, electronic mail, rumor-control telephone messages, employee relation committees, and department-wide open forum meetings. The department’s officers should immediately recommit themselves to increasing internal communications.
- Establish short-term interventions. Several collateral issues for strengthening its diversity initiatives should be addressed within this fire department. Some of the following recommendations can be accomplished quickly; a few will require a longer commitment for implementation to be accomplished. Also, it is acknowledged that the department’s employee relations committee may establish different tactics for achieving the equivalent diversity objectives and the researchers endorse employees’ efforts to address specific strategies.
Diversifying the department’s headquarters staff is critical. In a community comprised of 30 percent minority citizens, minority representation at fire department headquarters is almost nonexistent. Even though a myriad of legitimate political, promotional, and demographic factors is responsible for this situation, strategies for increasing minority representation in all divisions and at all supervisory levels must be developed. Demographic patterns suggest the community’s diversity is going to increase, and the fire department needs to strive to mirror the community’s demographic profile.
Lobbying for amending civil service lateral transfer rules will be unpopular with some department factions, but the fire service’s life-saving mission demands rapid responses to events and issues. Developing and implementing response strategies require that the fire chief possess more flexibility for allocating personnel for maximum productivity. Present transfer and promotional requirements hamper the chief’s ability to utilize all employees’ knowledge, skills, and abilities for maximum operational efficiency.
Enhance chief and subordinate officer development by establishing a management curriculum following recognized national models. Assigning officers to annual two-week management development sessions can have a profound and immediate positive effect on fire department operations. These sessions would involve group research projects and field trips for identifying and addressing internal departmental issues. Empowering officers to be responsible for improving operations creates ownership and interest among an extremely influential group-the officers who run the divisions, the shifts, and the stations.
Financially supporting the department’s recruitment team by providing operating funds is justified. However, spending money demands that the recruitment team establish specific and measurable quarterly and annual performance objectives such as the number of job fairs, recruitment contacts, high school and college visits, applicants tracked, recruitment strategy seminars attended, and so forth. Allowing recruitment members more autonomy and accountability offers the best model for increasing the team’s performance.
DEALING WITH RESISTANCE
An important diversity management task is to seek to reduce resistance during the process. Many firefighters will naturally resist that which they do not understand. This resistance can occur because the justification has not been fully explained to them; they fear diminished job security or decreased promotional opportunities. Chiefs have to anticipate and prepare for resistance to any change process.
Officers who lack experience or education in change strategies often get upset about resistance, but it’s inevitable. Patient and committed officers will survive the resistance phase. “Public human resource managers should anticipate resistance in the change process and plan strategies to manage it. Involvement and inclusion, ongoing communication and feedback to stakeholders, performance management, compensation, and executive leadership are some ways to accomplish this.”9
Diversity management programs offer opportunities and challenges for the fire service to meet citizens’ future public safety needs. The fire department studied in this case has provided its citizens with years of premier community service, indicative of the officers’ and firefighters’ commitment and dedication. However, dramatic demographic shifts have created a situation where the fire department’s employees are no longer representative of the community’s rapidly changing demographics.
The fire service must acknowledge that diversity conflict exists and that it can result in decreased public safety performance. The sooner senior fire officers implement a diversity management process, the smoother the outcome. The community’s citizens expect that the department’s limited financial and human resources will not be wasted on nonvalue activities such as resisting diversity. As more departmental revenue is committed to rapidly growing emergency service needs, less revenue will be available for addressing issues that could be prevented by a proactive management approach that recognizes the individual talents of every member.
While the studied fire department and the fire service are making progress toward accepting diversity, opportunities for improvement are available. This report offers one model for fire officers to use to proactively prepare their respective departments to meet 21st century public safety needs. If steps toward diversity management are taken today, employees and citizens will benefit tomorrow. Diversity management recognizes that the most productive use of resources is accepting that a Rubik’s Cube is correct when it is not solved!
BILL LOWE, EMT-P, Ph.D., is a captain/shift supervisor with the Clayton County (GA) Fire Department, where he has worked for 22 years. He has a doctorate in management; is pursuing a second doctoral specialization in marketing; and is an adjunct professor of fire science, leadership, marketing, and public safety administration at five universities and an adjunct faculty member in the National Fire Academy’s Management Science Program. In 1998, he was EMS Magazine’s “National Paramedic of the Year.”
BARRY BARNES, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he has taught for four years. He has a doctorate in organizational behavior and teaches doctoral-level human resource management, organizational behavior, and strategic management courses. He serves on numerous dissertation committees and is a prolific presenter/publisher of applied organizational behavior and organizational development topics.
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- Thomas, Roosevelt R, “From Affirmative Action to Affirming Diversity,” Harvard Business Review; 1990, Mar.-Apr., 107-117.