Many fire departments across the country are finding themselves in the peculiar position of not being prepared for the onslaught of grievances and lawsuits that their own department members are bringing against them. Many of these lawsuits aren’t about firefighting, extrication calls, or emergency medical service. They concern behavior against individuals who have different ethnic backgrounds, gender, religious beliefs, and sexual preferences. When firefighters, lieutenants, captains, battalion chiefs, assistant chiefs, and chiefs are disciplined for actions taken or actions not taken concerning discriminatory behavior in the fire station or on the fireground, they all react the same. The first words out of their mouths are, “We weren’t trained.” Ironically, most of the time their statements are true.

Lack of training concerning harassment, discrimination, violence, and respect in general are costing fire departments across the country money, time, and productivity. What is your fire department going to do? If this problem concerned the incident command system or a new style of self-contained breathing apparatus, you would simply write a new Incident Command Protocol or rewrite your standard standard operating procedures and train your entire department on them. Developing and implementing a diversity program for your department can be just as simple. The hardest part of the training is being totally committed and knowing where to begin.

In 1996, the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department researched, developed, and presented a comprehensive diversity program to ensure that all members of the fire department understood what was expected of them in terms of their behavior toward each other and their customers while representing the department. Using that diversity model, here are some steps toward developing your own diversity program.

If your department is committed to changing the negative behavior of your on-duty members toward diversity issues, you first need a total cooperative agreement between labor and management. This is necessary to ensure program success. If the union is uncooperative in the effort, the rank-and-file members will not buy into the concept, thus dooming the program before it gets off the ground. If managers don’t take the program seriously, when real complaints surface they will either try to sweep them under the rug or use disciplinary measures that reflect their unwillingness to deal with the real issues (give out punishment that does not fit the crime).

Once union and management agree to develop a diversity program, the next step is to appoint members of each group to a committee to plan, develop, and implement your program. The members selected should be very committed to the idea of diversity training. If a member is not committed, somewhere in the developmental stage the process will become stalled, or the committee will not produce a good program.

Your diversity committee must have a path that will carry it and your department to the desired goal. This is called a mission statement. A good mission statement will guide your department toward meeting the goals and objectives necessary to make your department a respectful place to work. Your diversity mission statement should be consistent with your department’s larger mission statement. The mission statement should be all-inclusive-i.e., race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and sexual preference. (See Figure 1.)

The next step is to present your diversity program to your members. Depending on your department’s size, this might present a logistical problem. Once you solve that problem, you should make attendance at training mandatory for all members, including chief officers. Use the same instructors for in-service training, and allow enough time for questions and discussion.

One of the techniques the Milwaukee Fire Department uses to create an interest in diversity issues is to show members how our department is diversity rich by presenting the following information: ethnic percentages, age breakdowns, and gender ratios within the department and for all promoted positions, too.

How many of your department members know the ethnic makeup of the citizens you serve? Probably not many, so it would be a good idea to present to your members an ethnic breakdown of your city, town, or community. Just like a good business entrepreneur, your department should know exactly who your customers are. Remember that embracing diversity will also reflect on the service you provide to your customers.

During your diversity presentation, clearly explain internal rules and regulations concerning diversity issues. Members must be clear on the interpretation of the rules and regulations that govern their behavior while on duty. Explain local ordinances and state and federal laws. If necessary, invite the city attorney to present the legal aspects of the state and federal laws governing diversity issues.

During the training, be sure that your department keeps a detailed record of who attended and the date. Always use a sign-in sheet to mark attendance. This will give you a complete list of members who missed the training for various reasons. Using a sign-in sheet will also protect your department if a member charged with a violation relating to diversity asserts, “I wasn’t trained.” You can simply state, “Yes, you were; we have your signature to prove it.”

One of the most successful components of our diversity program was the video scenarios that depicted several role-playing scenes. Members of the department, along with the diversity committee and the department’s audiovisual staff, created on video some situations in which behavior toward our customers and members was less than professional. These video scenarios provided the opportunity for healthy discussion in our in-service training and helped our members realize that although we provide outstanding service most of the time, we fall a little short sometimes.

In all phases of our diversity presentations, we used volunteers from inside the department. We wanted to develop a diversity plan and training program that featured our own talent and good ideas. By using our own members throughout the process, we increased the percentage of “buy-in” among department members.

* * *

Diversity is not about numbers and percentages. It is about respecting each individual’s background and beliefs. We all have perceived ideas about certain groups and beliefs. A good diversity program should not try to change anyone’s beliefs but should hold each fire service member accountable for negative behavior toward another member or citizen while representing the organization. Every fire service member has an inherent right under the law to work in a harassment- and discrimination-free environment.

DOUGLAS HOLTON, a 24-year veteran of the Milwaukee (WI) Fire Department, is the deputy chief of the Training Academy and of the Bureau of Instruction and Training. He is the chairman of the Milwaukee Fire Department Diversity Committee. Holton has a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice and a master of science degree in urban studies.

Figure 1. Sample Diversity Mission Statement
Diversity, as it is understood in the workplace today, implies differences in people based on their identification with various groups, but it is more. Diversity involves the process of acknowledging differences through action. In organizations, this means developing a variety of initiatives at the management and organizational levels, as well as at the interpersonal levels.

The continued excellence of the department is largely dependent on the ability to attract, develop, and retain highly skilled, talented, and motivated members. An essential element in maintaining this quality of service is the recognition of the value of a diverse workforce.

Characteristics such as age, culture, ethnicity, gender, race, religious preference, sexual orientation, and the expression of unique philosophies and ideas provide the opportunity to better understand each other. This understanding will strengthen the efficiency and productivity of the workforce, whose primary objective is to provide excellent service to the community.

The mission of the department is to maintain a high standard of excellence by attaining and fostering a diverse workforce. This will be accomplished by reaching the following goals:

  1. Uphold the federal, state, and local laws and the department’s rules and regulations regarding employment.
  2. Attract and retain qualified individuals from diverse backgrounds who are committed to the continued excellence of the department.
  3. Achieve a diverse workforce in terms of culture, ethnicity, gender, race, religious preference, and sexual orientation.
  4. Provide all employees with the opportunity for development and growth at every rank in the department.
  5. Expect all employees to treat each other with dignity and respect, regardless of perceived differences.
Previous articleFE Volume 155 Issue 3

No posts to display