THE ROLE OF THE COMPANY OFFICER IN MANAGING DIVERSITY

BY JOHN LEE COOK, JR.

MANY years ago, most fire departments in the United States included just one group of people: white males of northern European extraction. Several years later, and not without controversy, Italian-American and Hispanic men began to be hired as firefighters. In the 1960s, black males became career firefighters in meaningful numbers, and women began joining the fire service in the 1970s.1

Women and minorities entered the volunteer fire service before making serious inroads in the career service, but their entry has been no less arduous and is far from over. Several months ago, I attended a business meeting of a volunteer fire department that shall remain nameless. Several new members were to be voted into membership that night, and a heated debate ensued when a vote was held to admit the company’s first female. In reaction to an affirmative vote, one member announced his immediate resignation and stormed out of the room in protest. It made me realize how little has changed during my 32 years in the fire service.

I began my career as a volunteer and, because I was not 21 at the time, I had to have a minor’s release to be able to join the local fire department. The chief purposely held my application for several months until he was sure he had the votes necessary to get me in. You see, a simple majority was not enough. The department voted by placing marbles in a box. A white marble was affirmative; a black marble (i.e., black ball) was negative. If more than 10 percent of the marbles were black, you would not be admitted as a member. I received several black balls that night but was voted in on the first try. Another man with far more experience failed in his attempt that night and never was able to obtain membership.

In 1993, in response to the decline in the membership of the volunteer fire service, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and the United States Fire Administration (USFA) conducted a study that focused on the issues and problems affecting the recruitment and retention of volunteers. The study found that while recruitment was a problem, retention was a more serious problem and that in one way or another, nearly all the retention problems were directly or indirectly traced back to a leadership problem.2

Leadership implies the ability to change, because if you always do what you have always done, it is insane to assume that the results will be any different. I live near Washington, D.C., and many of the volunteer fire companies and rescue squads are struggling to remain volunteer because of their increasing inability to respond during the daytime. Although it is a very complex problem, women and minorities are noticeably absent on the rosters of many of the organizations. One can only wonder if the results would be different if the departments were more aggressive in recruiting nontraditional volunteers.

Unfortunately, there is still much to be done to truly diversify the fire service, and there are still barriers that limit either the upward or lateral mobility of minorities and women, regardless of merit.3 While a myriad of factors prevented the diversification of the fire service in the past, the most blatant was an organizational culture that was, at best, unwelcoming to women and people of color and, at worst, openly hostile to any individual who did not look, talk, or think like those in the majority. Obviously, such practices were discriminatory, but discrimination was not exclusive to race or gender.

While perhaps less noticeable, the more malignant organizational cultures routinely excluded certain groups of white males as well. This was particularly true if they were better educated than the norm, not a friend or relative of an incumbent, from the wrong neighborhood or faith, or from the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon Line. The most fervent hostility, however, was reserved for individuals whose sexual preference was in doubt. Proof, of course, was not a prerequisite. Admittedly, these factors did not prevent some white males who were “different” from entering the service, but routine and systematic hazing almost always guaranteed that they would be weeded out in short order.

Discrimination, of course, for any reason is illegal. It is also patently unfair-unfair not only to individuals who desire to become firefighters but also to the community served. When the conditions described above are allowed to exist, people are unfairly denied access to jobs that are funded by tax dollars collected from everyone in the community, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual preference. That is equally true in volunteer communities that rely on donations and fund-raising activities for their existence.

When this is allowed to happen, a perception can develop within a community that a policy of exclusion and discrimination is practiced and sanctioned by the local fire department. An atmosphere of distrust can develop, and distrust by any segment of the community has the potential to undermine the ability of a department to effectively serve and interact with its citizens. In some instances, a stereotype can develop within a community that the members of the local volunteer fire department are nothing more than a bunch of blue-collar rednecks that are beer-loving siren jockeys. Even more troubling is that the members of the department may actually be perceived as latent firesetters when the occasional volunteer is arrested and charged with arson.4

Ironically, it is our diversity that makes us strong as a nation, so much so that the Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum (one out of many) is affixed to the Great Seal of the United States. While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss remedies for the underrepresentation of certain groups within the workforce, it is appropriate to note that unless the lack of diversity within the workforce or membership of our volunteer organizations is adequately addressed, the problem will only be compounded as the diversity of the general population continues to increase (the Census Bureau has predicted that the nonwhite population will increase from its current level of 18 percent to 33 percent by 2010).

While potentially strengthening us, diversity also creates tension within our society and presents us with a number of challenges. Diversity presents us with opportunity and promise as well. And if the challenges of race, ethnicity, and gender were not enough, some experts believe that our generational differences will prove to be even more divisive. They assert that the misunderstanding and resentment among the four generations now in the workforce are growing and problematic; some have suggested that they do not believe that the rift will heal itself or go away. Economic issues, changing demographics, and differences in world views seem to be at the root cause of the generational problem.5

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The four generations currently in the workforce are commonly referred to as the Veterans (born between 1922 and 1943), the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), the Generation Xers (born between the early 1960s and 1980), and the Nexters (born since 1980). Each generation has its own distinct set of values, characteristics, and attitudes about life and work, which are summarized in Figure 1.

Although not everyone can be easily categorized, there are some commonalities that allow us to study the general characteristics of each of the generations. If we can identify and understand the differences and similarities of each group, we can develop a plan to successfully assimilate them into the workforce. An increased understanding of the dynamics of each generation also allows us to capitalize on strengthens and abilities that each generation brings to the workforce and to identify potential weaknesses that allow us to improve and enhance their contributions.

THE FIRST STEP IN INCREASING DIVERSITY

Many believe that diversity is exclusively the fire chief’s responsibility. The issue of diversity, however, is very complex and is different from most problems because it has its roots in the values and belief systems of our communities and the people that live within them. Diversity within a workforce or membership of an organization can only be achieved when all members realize that it is their collective responsibility to become a part of the solution.

Success appears to occur when the number of women, minorities, or members of a particular generation reaches a certain critical mass in the department. This is not just at the entry level but throughout the entire rank structure. When that occurs, diversity ceases to be a major issue because women and minorities are accepted and are no longer viewed as outsiders. Even then, much work has to be done to preserve the balance and progress made by everyone.

While everyone is responsible for diversity, and the fire chief certainly provides the policy and oversight to undertake the journey toward a more diverse workforce or membership, there are a few individuals within every fire department who can do more than others to make sure the journey is successful. And just who are these individuals, and why do they offer us a great hope for success? Let us look to the past for the answer.

In preliterate tribal society, the campfire was central to the preservation of the traditions, values, and mores of the tribe. The men of the village would gather around the campfire, and the elders and chieftains would recount the great victories won on the battlefield against their enemies and celebrate the skills and abilities of the great hunters. In this way, the tribe’s culture was preserved, and the young boys of the tribe learned what would be expected of them when they grew large and strong enough to assume their place within the tribe. In a quieter, less visible way, young girls also learned their future roles from their mothers and the matriarchs of the tribe.

The fire station dinner table has replaced the tribal campfire and is the symbolic center of our village. The great fires of the past are refought over a cup of coffee, and our heroes and legends are celebrated. This is also the place where the next generation of firefighters learns the customs, values, and beliefs of the department. Unfortunately, it is also where many of the things that are taught in recruit school are unlearned and the new firefighter learns how things are done in the real world.

The company officer is the tribal elder and custodian of a department’s organizational culture. Day in and day out, company officers live and work with the members of their company and by action, word, and deed indoctrinate the rank and file. This is also true in a volunteer department because of the contact that the company officers have on drill night, at fund-raisers, and when the members of their company pull duty crew. (Note: Many of the volunteer departments in my area staff their stations around the clock with duty crews to get the first engine or ambulance out the door in a timely fashion. During the week, more and more of the daytime crews are career.)

As custodian of the culture, the company officer sets the standard for behavior, determines what will and will not be tolerated in the fire station, decides how firefighters will treat each other, and describes the attitudes that are acceptable. The company officer also determines the quantity and quality of work that will be produced and the type and amount of play that will be tolerated. The rules that will be obeyed, the policies that will be enforced, and what will happen if someone steps out of line are also communicated by the company officer’s action or inaction in any given situation.

The company officer is responsible for mentoring and preparing the members of the company to perform their jobs as well as for helping them to be successful throughout their entire tenure with the department. No single person has more influence over an individual firefighter than the company officer. Just as our parents served as role models for us when we were children, the company officer teaches us what we should become as firefighters.

An environment that is overtly or covertly hostile to women or people of color cannot flourish in a station unless the company officer allows it to flourish. Hazing, offensive remarks, and off-color humor cannot take place if the company officer requires that everyone be treated with dignity and respect. It begins, of course, with the officer’s treating the members of the company with dignity and respect. This in no way suggests that the fire station should be run like a boot camp or a monastery. Work needs to be fun, but there are appropriate limits. A chief officer cannot be in the station all of the time; therefore, it is the responsibility of the company officer to set those limits. It really is just a matter of making sure that everyone treats each other as they personally would like to be treated.

The company officer also decides how open the fire station will be to the neighborhood and how the people that we serve will be treated. In subtle ways, firefighters learn whether they are serving at Fort Apache-a lone outpost on a hostile frontier populated by people who are different socially, culturally, or ethnically from themselves-or if they are serving in an island of refuge and a safe haven that is open to all regardless of their circumstances.

A fire company or rescue squad has almost daily contact with the public when making calls; conducting inspections; giving public education programs; and performing simple tasks like taking a citizen’s blood pressure, showing a child the fire engine, or giving someone directions. These contacts communicate the department’s openness to diversity and help a young child decide if becoming a career or volunteer firefighter is something worth pursuing.

If the company officer does not have an attitude that is accepting of people who are different, we cannot expect that our firefighters will be any different. One fire chief, or even a handful of staff members, cannot overcome an organizational culture that has been shaped and formed over many years by people who are intolerant of others because of race, gender, or age. After all, most chief officers are products of that same culture.

RETAKING THE HIGH GROUND

A company officer is, after all, just one of the guys or gals in the fire station. If officers enforce the rules or dare to be different from the accepted norm, they will be labeled as a hard case, and people may not want to work for them. Some people will not eat dinner or watch television with them or might even walk out when they enter the room. No one wants to be disliked. No one wants to be the first person to begin to do the right thing when it is far easier just to go along with the status quo.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that a significant number of people do not become company officers because they want to be managers and have to make the difficult decisions required when it is necessary to do the right thing. Rather, some people become officers because it means a higher paycheck, more retirement at the end of the day, or more prestige within the ranks of a volunteer fire company. This is particularly true for career firefighters who volunteer on their days off and who have not yet made rank within their career department.

Our communities will continue to become more diverse. We cannot stop it. Generational differences will grow and create more problems for us. Our choice, however, is simple. We can choose to curse the darkness and become victims of the changes that are occurring, or we can light a candle and become agents of change because it is the right thing to do. There is a solution, and the problem is manageable because diversity will give us our strength and guarantee our future.

All that will be required to be successful is that a few courageous company officers accept their responsibility to manage their companies and to begin to foster an environment within their companies and stations where everyone is welcome and where people are nice to each other. (I am, unfortunately, familiar with a number of fire departments where the members are simply just not nice to each other.) The problem may at first seem to be overwhelming because it appears to be an impossible task to change an entire organizational culture.

To be successful, company officers must learn to focus on their circle of influence-the things they can change such as attitudes and the environment within the confines of their fire stations-and not focus on changing the things they cannot change, like the entire department all at once.6 As the atmosphere within their station improves and is transformed, others will be drawn to their success. Success breeds success; people want to be part of something positive. Gradually, people on other shifts and in different companies and stations will figure out that things are different and will want to be a part of the transformation. It can be overwhelming.

The story of the D-Day invasion was dramatically retold in the movie Saving Private Ryan. It is very illustrative of the task that lies before an agent of change. The Allied invasion force simply wanted to establish a foothold on the beach; then it systematically began to retake Europe literally an inch at a time until it advanced all the way to Berlin and defeated Germany.

Transforming an organizational culture is slow and painful, not unlike fighting a war. Unfortunately, just as in a real war, there will be casualties along the way. People will have their feelings hurt and in some cases may be forced to change jobs if they cannot adapt to the new way of doing things.

People of color and of different genders and generations have been denied access to jobs and membership in fire departments for far too long. The time to make a difference is now. The journey begins with the first step. Like the soldiers at D-Day, company officers must be willing to get out of the boat and lead their troops toward their objective.

The objective of a diverse workforce that interacts with the community in an appropriate manner is no less noble an idea than was the idea of a Europe free of the tyranny of Fascism. The systematic and purposeful exclusion of people on the basis of color, race, gender, or age involves tyranny as well-a tyranny we would do well to vanquish.

Endnotes

  1. Many Faces, One Purpose: A Handbook on Women in Firefighting. Women in the Fire Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency/United States Fire Administration, 1999.
  2. Retention and Recruitment in the Volunteer Fire Service: Problems and Solutions, January 1996. National Volunteer Fire Council and the Federal Emergency Management Agency/United States Fire Administration, FA-158, February 1996.
  3. America Burning, Recommissioned. American Burning Recommissioned Panel. Principal Finding and Recommendation #7. Federal Emergency Management Agency/United States Fire Administration, 2000.
  4. Perkins, K. B. and Benoit, J. The Future of Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services: Taming the Dragons of Change (Stillwater, Oklahoma: Fire Protection Publications, Oklahoma State University, 1996).
  5. Zemke, R., Raines C., & Filipczak, B. Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace (New York: American Management Association, 2000).
  6. Covey, S. R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989).

JOHN LEE COOK, JR., a consultant and writer, retired from the fire service after 32 years of service. He had been the chief of 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).

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