Less Diversity Is Needed in the Fire Service

By Kelly B. Jernigan

This commentary is in response to “A Matter of National Security” by Joseph B. Muhammad of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters (IABFF) (Fire Commentary, September 2009). Wait, what? There is such a thing as the IABFF? Isn’t that what the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is for? The advancement of firefighters? Not black firefighters, not white firefighters, not female firefighters, not Hispanic firefighters, but FIREFIGHTERS? Aren’t we all one in this profession?

After reading the article during lunch, I continued my daily duties at the firehouse, which included training. During training on a new piece of equipment, I ended up at the computer looking up technical specification questions that arose with our hands-on ventures. I did not find what I was looking for, but my search endeavors led me to the forums on the Fire Engineering Web site (www.fireengineering.com) regarding discrimination in the fire service. The topic was not as popular as I originally thought. I was expecting an infinite number of search results written by anyone who had an opinion on racism and diversity. However, very few of these articles were of any relevance to the fire service.

In the forums, I discovered the same type of promotional test controversy in Houston, Texas. I searched for the case and found the article “7 Black Houston Firefighters Sue, Say City Exam Biased.” Similar to the New Haven 20 case, Dennis Thompson, the lawyer for the black firefighters in Houston, argued the tests were unfair. “Firefighters trying to attain the rank of captain and above in the Houston Fire Department must take a 100-question multiple-choice test. Numerous studies show that blacks as a group do less well on high-stakes tests,” Thompson said. He also stated, “Fire departments should use cognitive tests only as a pass-fail benchmark and also should focus on performance exercises and other criteria.” (Carolyn Feibel, Houston Chronicle, February 6, 2009)

Captain Otis Jordan, president of the Houston Black Firefighters Association (HBFA), said, “We don’t do as well on these multiple-choice tests.” He also stated, “I compare fighting a fire, riding an apparatus, to playing football. Your best athlete might not be the straight-A student.” Statements such as these say to me Jordan believes black firefighters are not as intelligent as those of other races. It sounds like these lawyers and black firefighter associations are trying to prove their point by making their own race look bad. The HBFA was not affiliated with the lawsuit.

If I were black, I would be irate at this lawyer or this group for saying I am not smart enough to take the same test as other races. I know if I were involved in a female coalition and it represented me with this argument, I would definitely ask for my dues back.

I agree there are credible accusations and incidents of discrimination, many of which aren’t officially stated or do not make it past the initial grievance procedure. Some of these situations fall into the same category as the New Haven 20 “reverse discrimination” lawsuit, and the individuals involved don’t have the money or the time to challenge city government. They would rather go on and do their jobs as firefighters and hope things are improved by someone high enough wanting to do what is right for the department.

Enough on the discrimination issue. I had to finish some things around the station, eat supper, and do the daily rituals before calling it a “workday” at the firehouse. Still, I couldn’t get this situation out of my mind. After many long hours pondering the subject of the New Haven 20, Houston, and even my own fire department, I have come to this conclusion: We need less diversity in the fire service.

Yes, I said it, less diversity. Let me explain. In my mind there are two types of people in the fire service—there are firefighters and there are people who work for the fire department.

 

FIREFIGHTERS

 

Firefighters are people of all races, religions, walks of life—male and female—who live their lives for the fire service. They are the people who dreamed their whole lives about becoming firefighters or have been introduced to the lifestyle and fell in love with it. Firefighters are the ones who take the extra initiative to produce and conduct training, constantly learn new things about the fire service, and make suggestions on how to make the job safer and more efficient. Firefighters are the ones who worry about brotherhood and watching out for their fellow firefighters at all costs. Firefighters are the ones you want beside you when it hits the fan deep inside a building, when you are searching for the small child or elderly person and the smoke, heat, and fire are banked down so low it feels like your body is going to melt. Firefighters will be there with you until the end.

Firefighters, when deciding to advance up the career ladder, will study promotional materials during every spare moment. They prepare for the tests, and most do well. But if they don’t, they blame no one but themselves, knowing that even though they may not be good test takers, they should have prepared more and studied harder. And by doing this, the next time they will do better.

Even as chiefs or company officers, it shows if your heart is in the fire service. Chiefs and company officers whose first love is the fire service are the ones who know the fire department is unlike any other department in the city. The fire department doesn’t bring in as much revenue as the police department or Collections, but it is a necessity.

Fire officers who fall into this category are not afraid to ask for what their people need. They are not afraid to be the rogue avengers, to take on the city managers and convince them what the department needs to be the best and the safest. They are the ones worried about the times when we have to make split-second decisions and knowing they are the right decisions, not about the things that we can go back and look up while sitting behind a desk.

 

FIRE DEPARTMENT EMPLOYEES

 

On the other hand, you have the people who work for the fire department. These are people who saw the ad in the paper for the fire department agility test and decided maybe working for city government would be better than working at a fast food restaurant. Fire department employees are also people of all races, religions, and walks of life—male and female. These are the employees who arrive at work at the last minute, abuse sick time, and never read or study to better themselves. They are the ones who do just enough to get by. They can usually quote verbatim the policies and procedures because they often use them to their advantage to see what they can get away with doing or not doing.

Officers who are fire department employees are the ones who are more worried about proper supervisory methods and how to do paperwork. While these tasks are extremely important and must be mastered, learning how to operate efficiently and aggressively on the fire scene, in my opinion, is an art that must be learned first and foremost. We have all seen the type—officers who are great at doing administrative duties and paperwork but on the emergency scene are ineffective to the point of being inept. They are the ones who look good in the administration’s eyes because they never want to rock the boat. They never want to go against the grain to offer any new suggestions, even if those suggestions are for life safety. These officers will never stick their necks out and have to be on the defensive or give justification for having to go against policy for doing what it took to save a life.

 

WHICH ONE ARE YOU?

 

When you meet people in the fire service, you can talk to them for about 10 minutes and tell if you are talking to firefighters or people who work for the fire department. You can tell if they are genuinely interested in taking the promotion to better themselves along with hopes of bettering the department or if they are just interested in the status and the pay raise that come with the promotion.

To put it in perspective, look around at some of the females in the fire service. I use this analogy because I can’t be labeled as prejudiced if I talk about my own kind, right? Are they firefighters or just females who work in the fire department? When the alarm comes in, do they have that “Let’s go get it, guys” attitude, or do they kind of hang back, hoping someone will take the lead? Are they the drivers who, when the announcement comes over the radio, “Smoke and heavy flames visible,” you hear the engine brake kick in, or are they the ones the officer has to call into the office after returning from the call and tell them, “Slow down, we can’t do anything if we don’t get there”? Do they expect and demand to have separate quarters all their own, or do they strive to be one of the guys? Do they become sensitive when the word “fireman” is used instead of “firefighter,” or is that how they introduce themselves, only to be corrected by the public?

A firefighter who happens to be a female is the one who doesn’t care about special treatment. She expects and demands to be treated equally—not better, equally.

You can talk to Blacks, Hispanics, and all the other races and tell the same. Black and Hispanic firefighters are no different from any other firefighters. They love the job. They are firefighters first and foremost.

It’s the same situation no matter who you are. It may be different in general industry, but as much as we preach diversity, understanding differences, and equal opportunity, it all boils down to one thing in the fire service: Are you a firefighter or just someone who works for the fire department?

 

THE PERFECT WORLD

 

Imagine working for a department with all firefighters. Very few disciplinary procedures would be needed. If there were discipline, it would be for a minor infraction such as broken glass at the station from friendly horseplay. Everyone on the fire scene would know what they are supposed to do without being told, and they would know how to do it.

We would have chiefs who are looked up to by everyone because they would be in that position because they deserve it, not because they know how to dress up a resume. They would not be afraid to take on the budget committees and city councils to get the money their firefighters need to be the best fire department in the state instead of thinking it will make them look good if they can turn in extra money at the end of the year.

We would promote based on validated test scores, time in service, work ethics, past appraisals, and coworker recommendations. Promotions would not be based on diversity quotas or a friend taking a good friend to the top. In return, once people realize how promotions work in the department of firefighters, and if they wanted to be promoted, they would step up and produce all year, not just around promotion time. This is the reason we need to join together and express our desires to hire and promote individuals who are not only good employees but who are great firefighters or who are the type of officers we want to work for or strive to be like. Let’s do away with hiring employees and start hiring people who genuinely want to be firefighters.

So next time you’re thinking of becoming a member of an ethnic or gender-specific organization so you can get help with screaming, “I didn’t get promoted because of my color, gender, ethnicity, or religion,” think about what class you represent. Are you a firefighter, or do you just work for the fire department?

Kelly B. Jernigan is a 19-year veteran of the fire service and a captain on Winston-Salem (NC) Fire Department Truck 2. She is a former deputy chief and training officer with the South Lexington (NC) Volunteer Fire Department. Jernigan is a level II fire service and live burn instructor for the North Carolina Fire and Rescue Commission. She is a certified hazardous materials specialist and a rescue technician rope specialist. She was also the fire and rescue coordinator for Davidson County Community College for 10 years and has an associate degree in computer programming.

 

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