Compiled By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
John S. Butler, currently the fire chief for the Fairfax County (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department, was the newly promoted fire chief for the Howard County (Md.) Department of Fire/Rescue Services in 2015 when he set a goal for increasing the diversity of his fire/rescue department. In setting that goal, Chief Butler challenged his staff to begin pursuit of that goal by answering “Why is it important to have a diverse and inclusive department?” before determining what recruitment and selection actions to pursue.
In 2016, Howard County Fire/Rescue Services welcomed the most diverse class of entry-level firefighter/paramedic trainees in its history. Of the 36 applicants selected for the 26-week Emergency Medical Services and Fire training academy, 20 were women or other culturally diverse trainees, and eight were bilingual, speaking Chinese, French, Korean, Russian and Spanish (Language skills that are particularly useful in Howard County with a very diverse population of 328,200 as reported in the 2020 census. Geographically, Howard County is part of the Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD Metropolitan Statistical Area).
Read more from Chief Butler in this piece, Answer ‘Why diversity is important’ to improve firefighter recruitment.
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION
First, lets align your expectations with what you’re about to read.
Diversity is about counting people. Inclusion is about making people count. Diversity is about the ingredients, the mix of people and perspectives.
Inclusion is about the container – the place that allows employees to feel they belong, to feel both accepted and different, and to feel like they can contribute to the success of the organization. To achieve success today and tomorrow in meeting the challenges it faces, a fire department needs a group of people who think differently – in a place that’s safe to share those differences.
A couple of other key terms that I believe are critical to understand when tackling diversity and inclusion challenges are:
The dominant group in most fire departments comprised of white males and it’s that dominant group has written the rules, the regulations, and the procedures. And they’ve created all the cultural elements that goes along with those formal documents (e.g., patches, slogans, work practices, and yes, even hazing). All of which—as with any organization—serve as controls to ensure that the dominant group remains the dominant group.
The non-dominant group is composed of everyone else (e.g., women, minorities, different nationalities) that are not white males.
Many fire departments have focused their recruiting efforts on diversity–getting more applicants who are members of the non-dominant group.
Below are seven articles that I believe provide a good look at how to improve diversity and inclusion in fire departments from several different perspectives from several different authors.
The policies presented to potential candidates define your philosophy and values with respect to diversity and hiring decisions.
The key to change may be the unique combination of recruitment practices, a validated placement exam, and a process of random selection.
Promoting recruitment and retention for diversity throughout the firefighter career lifecycle helps departments achieve success today and tomorrow.
Consistency and persistence of inclusive values will help the fire service leaders move beyond hollow proclamations of diversity.
If departments want to promote diversity in the fire service, they have to do more to remove the barriers preventing women from becoming firefighters.
Fire service leaders explain why inclusivity creates a stronger department and counter a common area of contention in advocating for diversity.
A commitment to diversity and inclusion must be practiced and reaffirmed constantly in both behavior and underlying culture.