What’s Your Plan for an Inclusive and Diverse Department to Increase Service and Safety?

By:  Robert Avsec

It was a dark, story night…OOPS…wrong beginning!  (My apologies to Snoopy!)

Diversity and the fire service—sadly, never really far apart from each other—are once again in the national headlines.  The current fire academy class of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), which just weeks ago was in the news because it was the most diverse probationary class in the department’s history, is in the spotlight again because:

Halfway through the 18-week Fire Academy course, the dropout rate has hit a sky-high 15 percent and could climb to a third of the 318 who started on July 29, according to insiders.

—New York Post, October 13, 2012

One of my LinkedIn colleagues, Larry Sagen, is the Executive Director at FIRE 20/20 and today he posted the following comment on LinkedIn regarding this latest development with the FDNY Fire Academy class:

The solution for an inclusive and diverse fire department is NOT just recruiting more women and people of color. The SOLUTION is recruiting the RIGHT people—qualified, inclusive, diverse and safety-conscious. And yes, that includes the RIGHT white males who understand why an inclusive and diverse department increases service and safety. Recruitment is not just getting more people to apply and show up for the test. Successful recruitment is the first level of the screening process.

—Larry Sagen, October 15, 2013

Right on, Larry!  Several years ago, when I was the Director of the Training and Safety Division for the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department (CFEMS), I was having a discussion with one of my direct reports, Firefighter Alonzo Dodson on the subject of recruiting and retention of minorities.  Alonzo, who is a man of color, was at the time leading our Cadet Firefighter Program.


The Cadet Firefighter Program was an initiative that our department had undertaken, in collaboration with the local Vocational and Technical High School, as a strategy for boosting recruitment of firefighters for the volunteer component of our combination system. Click on the image to enlarge for better viewing.


To make what was a long conversation short, I was encouraging Firefighter Dodson to pursue advancement to the rank of Lieutenant, our Company Officer rank.  Alonzo is a very talented and skilled cross-trained firefighter/ALS Provider; that I selected him to take over leadership of the Cadet Program, when Firefighter (now Captain) Bill Jeffords returned to Emergency Operations, should tell you something.  Eventually, our conversation “got around to” what would be effective strategies for increasing the number of men and women of color in CFEMS.

One of my suggested strategies was intertwined with my encouragement for Alonzo to get promoted.  It was—and remains to this day—my contention that an effective strategy must have several components:

  • The department has to have a clear and succinct and easy to remember recruitment and retention philosophy that articulates the importance of diversity to accomplishing the mission.  (Football analogy:  How successful would a team be with a roster of only quarterbacks and running backs?  Likely not very successful.  A successful football team at any level must have talented and skilled players for all 22 positions—offensive and defensive—that it must staff on the field).
  • Everyone in the organization—from the newest entry-level member to the Fire Chief—must know and understand the plan and what their role is in accomplishing the plan.  (Every football team has a Game Plan specifically designed for the game with their next opponent.  The week prior to the game, everyone learns and practices for their role in executing that week’s game plan).
  • Everyone (see above) must be held 100 percent accountable for their actions in executing the plan.  I believe that the most critical element for this is an absolute and unyielding intolerance for any behavior on the part of any individual—regardless of rank—or team within the organization who does not, as Larry Segan stated, understand why an inclusive and diverse department increases service and safety.”  (Football players and coaches are evaluated on their performance after every game by management, the media, and the public.  Poor performers do not last long.  Worse is behavior that reflects poorly on the team.  Those players or coaches usually don’t have a place on the team for very long).

Gordon Graham, an expert on organizational risk reduction strategies for public safety agencies, puts it this way:  You can’t expect to deliver excellent external service until you’re delivering excellent internal customer service.  Ask any leader of an organization that’s successful at recruiting, hiring, and retaining good people and you’re likely to get the same answer:

  • Take care of, appreciate, and value the incumbent members of your organization; they are your best recruiting tool.
  • They will be one of the fundamental reasons why good people will stay with you.

We have many Fire and EMS organizations who are “talking the talk, and walking the walk” when it comes to developing and maintaining a diverse staff that includes men and women of color, different national origins, religions, sexual orientation, etc.  Unfortunately, we still have too many departments—large and small, career and volunteer—who don’t “get it” and are constantly making the headlines with their actions that bring discredit to their departments, their communities, and our honorable profession.

And those are just the ones that make the news.

Firefighter Discrimination Search Results

In writing this piece, I did a quick search on Google using the following search string: fire+service+discrimination+cases+2013. This is just what came up on the first page for the search. The headlines are bad enough; reading the full story behind each reveals much more. Click on the image to enlarge it for better viewing.


For every case like these, there are likely untold numbers of other instances of “firefighters and officers behaving badly” towards their fellow members that never make the news or wind up in court.  Don’t believe me?  Do a little research on social media, e.g., Facebook, Twitter, and fire service-related blogs and you’ll see that—as a profession—we’ve got a long way to go before we universally reach the point where all men and women, and particularly white males, “understand why an inclusive and diverse department increases service and safety.”



The rest of my conversation with Alonzo?  Well I told you it was a long one, so I’ll have to continue in a subsequent blog.

See you next time?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].