Firefighters will reflect the attitudes of their company officers. If the company officers do not accept people who are different from them, we cannot reasonably expect that the firefighters under their command will be any different. Company officers are the custodians of a fire department’s organizational culture; the chief and the chief’s staff cannot easily change a culture that was shaped and formed over many years by people who were intolerant of others because of race, gender, or age.

Chief officers who spent their early careers in a culture that did not value diversity will find it especially difficult to change a similar culture. First, the chief officer may not personally understand or believe in the value of a diverse membership. Additionally, the chief may be viewed as being one of us because, in the past, he exhibited the same behaviors and expressed the same sentiments as the majority of the rank and file. The chief might also be viewed with suspicion if he begins to advocate changing the composition of the department’s membership, especially if it is believed that the current makeup of the membership is the very reason he became the chief in the first place.

Do not interpret these statements as justification in any way of a culture that excludes an individual from its membership because of being different in some way from the majority. Nor am I attempting to make excuses for anyone. To the contrary, I believe very strongly that chief officers have a responsibility and an obligation to attempt to change a dysfunctional culture, even if they are products of that culture.

Company officers may be the custodians of a fire department’s organizational culture, but the chief is responsible for defining and shaping the culture. It is, therefore, imperative for chief officers to clearly establish very early in their careers which behaviors are acceptable and which are unacceptable within the department. Unacceptable behaviors should include any behavior, deed, or action that results in a member’s being treated unfairly on the basis of age, race, gender, or sexual preference that is intended to have an adverse impact on a member’s esteem or feeling of self-worth. A chief officer must clearly prohibit such behaviors and should not tolerate them. Company officers should not tolerate them either.

Before we proceed, we should reflect for a moment on the fact that one of the ways a culture successfully perpetuates itself is by recruiting new members who share the same values, beliefs, and traits as the current membership and by weeding out anyone who is different and threatens the well-being of the culture. This should not come as a surprise to anyone, nor should it be trivialized. It is truly an enormous task to attempt to change the culture of a mature, established organization. Recruiting folks similar to the incumbents is not necessarily a bad thing-if you are recruiting the right kind of folks. The United States Marine Corps, as an example, attributes much of its success to the fact that it recruits “what they are.”1

One of the ways a fire chief shapes and molds the culture is by creating or renewing a vision for the department’s future with a passion and zeal that demonstrate that he earnestly believes in that vision. The spoken word is very important, and it is essential that the chief communicate his vision to others at every opportunity. Department members must be made to understand the need for and the value of a diversified membership to the community and to themselves. The chief must be extremely cautious because any statement he makes that contradicts or departs from this message can easily derail the entire process.

A culture cannot be changed unless the members of the department share and accept the chief’s vision for the future. When leaders and followers share the same vision, many great things are possible. In the absence of a shared vision, very little is possible. People do not fear change; they fear the loss of control. Therefore, the chief must convince the department members that there is everything to gain by transforming the culture and the membership and very little, if anything, to lose.

Clearly, one of the biggest mistakes that can be made at this juncture is to set up the women and minorities brought into the department for certain failure by lowering standards or creating a perception that an exception has been made for them. The first women and members of other racial and ethnic groups will be pioneers and will need to be stronger and better than everyone else to succeed. They will have to prove themselves every day. Therefore, the chief must create every opportunity for their success and not cause them to fail by attempting to go for a quick fix for this very complicated problem. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for success, and in many instances, civil service systems or collective bargaining agreements will make the chief’s efforts more difficult but no less worthwhile.

Unfortunately, many chiefs say they want change, that they want diversity in their organizations, but they don’t understand that there has to be a basic change in the organization’s culture and that they will have to make a major financial commitment to accomplish such change. They will also have to hold people accountable for making it happen, just as they do for any other major goal or objective, such as using the incident command system or the accountability system.2

For real change to occur, the chief must walk the talk. It is easy to say that you are committed to diversity; it is another thing to do something about it. A chief’s actions must reinforce what he says he believes. Otherwise, the chief is simply paying lip service to an issue, and things will not change. Walking the talk also means enforcing the rules against sexual harassment and hazing and supporting company officers who are attempting to create positive changes within their respective stations.

Walking the talk also means that the chief should not be guilty of acting like one of the boys by telling jokes at the water fountain that disparage women or people of color. Additionally, a chief’s responsibilities include but are not limited to the following list of items:

  • keeping abreast of laws and court decisions concerning employment and diversity issues;
  • acting as a liaison with relevant community interest groups such as the NAACP, LULAC, NOW, and so on;
  • working with the legal and human resources departments to ensure that the department’s hiring and promotional practices are legal and fair and do not have a disparate impact on any race, gender, or ethnic group;
  • keeping the elected officials and the boss informed of activities and progress; and
  • creating opportunities for success.

While potentially strengthening us, diversity creates tension within our society and presents us with a number of challenges. Diversity also presents us with opportunity and promise. Most people assume that workplace diversity is about increasing racial, national, gender, or class representation. Diversity goes beyond increasing the number of different identity groups in an organization to recognizing that such an effort is merely the first step in managing a diverse workforce for the organization’s benefit. Diversity should also be understood as the varied perspectives and approaches to work that members of different identity groups bring to an organization.

Diverse people can help us by challenging our assumptions about the department’s functions, practices, procedures, and other areas. Readily apparent traits such as skin color and language are just the tip of the iceberg when dealing with the complexities of diversity. With an iceberg, it is that which lies beneath the surface that is the most dangerous. Icebergs are deceptive because the vast majority of an iceberg lies hidden beneath the surface. The supposedly unsinkable Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg. A gaping hole was torn in the ship’s hull beneath the ship’s water line. Hundreds of lives were lost as a result.

As with an iceberg, individual attitudes, values, beliefs, and perceptions lie beneath the surface and are not readily apparent. That which is hidden from public view tends to create the most problems and conflict when we attempt to assimilate people of other races or cultures into an organization.3 Thus, a successful diversification effort must include training and education in identifying and resolving individual differences and understanding people of other races and cultures.

It is absolutely critical for the chief to stand firm and not tolerate any behavior that results in inappropriate treatment of anyone on the basis of age, gender, race, or sexual preference. The chief must also clearly stand by those officers and members who have bought into diversity. When the supporters are mistreated and abused, the chief must be ready and able to support them and not tolerate their mistreatment.

When an organization begins to recruit members of other races or genders, it is very common for managers to take one of two approaches in dealing with a diversity membership. One very simplistic approach is to expect that people will readily blend in with everyone else. A second approach is to set women and people of color apart from everyone else and place them in special positions such as that of public education officer or recruiting officer. Neither approach tends to lead to success.

If we expect everyone to blend in and conform to the group, we lose the value of individual talent. If we set people apart, we magnify their differences and can easily create an opportunity for them to fail. We can also unintentionally foster resentment against them because some people might believe that women or people of color are receiving different or better treatment simply because of their race or gender.

This does not mean that there should not be some accommodation because of the inherent differences that exist when we begin to mix people of different genders or races. Providing separate bathrooms and sleeping facilities for women, for example, is one such accommodation. There is a myth that accommodation implies treating people differently or as inferior. This is not true. I don’t know who decided that everyone should have to sleep or go to the bathroom in groups. Much is made of the fact that the fire station is our second home. Well, most people enjoy the luxury of some privacy when they sleep or use the bathroom at home. Why should it be different at work?

Another potential pitfall is customer service. If you are having internal problems with members, you cannot maximize service to the public. (3) We must learn to be nice to each other and to treat others with respect before we can be expected to treat members of the public in that manner. The chief should demand and expect that the membership be polite and respectful to the public and to each other.

One result of diversification of membership is synergy. In his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey describes synergy as “catalytic, empowering, and unifying and the essence of principle-centered leadership.” Its result is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.4 If we value physical differences between men and women, why do we not value our respective social, mental, and emotional differences? The concept of synergy suggests that we should remain open to new possibilities, new alternatives, and new options and always consider a third alternative based on the principle of win/win.

Kurt Lewin, a renowned sociologist, developed a Force Field Analysis model, which is useful for diagramming the dynamics of change within an organization. Organizations, like the people in them, tend to favor the status quo. Within an organization, there are people who resist change (restraining forces) and those who push for change (driving forces). These forces include training and education, litigation, leadership, and community involvement. For a change to occur in the status quo, there must be more and stronger driving forces than restraining forces-for example, ignorance, prejudice, perceptions, and stereotypes. Likewise, if the resisting forces become stronger, organizations can regress and return to the “good old days” before some unwanted changes take place.

A fire chief must be skillful enough to identify resisting forces and must attempt to transform them to forces that help drive the change. In some instances, a defining moment, such as a court order resulting from a lawsuit or the passage of a new statute, takes the decision out of the hands of the local fire chief and the organization’s members and forces changes to occur.

The following random thoughts about diversity can help transform resisting forces into driving forces.

  • A diverse workforce will embody different perspectives and approaches and must value a variety of opinions and insights.
  • Diversity results in an expression of differences that creates learning opportunities and challenges.
  • To be successful, the chief must create an expectation of high standards of performance from everyone.
  • The culture should stimulate personal development.
  • The culture must encourage openness.
  • The culture must make every member feel valued.
  • The department must have a well-articulated and widely understood mission.
  • A department should have a relatively egalitarian, nonbureaucratic structure.

JOHN LEE COOK JR., a public safety consultant and writer, retired from the fire service after 32 years of service. He was chief in Conroe and Denton, Texas, and director of fire and rescue for Loudoun County, Virginia. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Sam Houston State University and a master’s degree in public administration from Southwest Texas State University. He is the author of Standard Operating Procedures and Guidelines (Fire Engineering, 1998).


  1. Carrison, D. and R. Walsh. Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way. (New York: American Management Association, 1999).
  2. Thomas, D. A. and S. Wetlaufer. “A Question of Color: A Debate on Race in the U.S. Workplace,” Harvard Business Review; 1997:75, 118-132.
  3. Albertson, C. “From the Many, One,” Fire Chief; 1997:41, 36-48.
  4. Covey, S. R. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).
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