The Diversity “Dog Whistle” in the Fire Service

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

In November 2017, my editor, Kerri Hatt, and her team put together a roundtable discussion asking a group of fire service leaders to explain why inclusivity creates a stronger department and counter a common area of contention in advocating for diversity. The article was recently reposted and you can read it here:

Roundtable: How to improve fire department diversity

One reader back in March of 2019 posted the following comment on the article:

Diversity is fine but not at the expense of quality and competence. We’ re in the business of saving lives therefore only qualified and capable people should be accepted into our ranks. Diversity should be the lowest factor on the scale of deciding what qualifies someone to enter this profession. Diversity for the sake of diversity is wrong, wrong, wrong…period!!!

Last time I checked, it’s 2019. Isn’t it about time to retire the diversity “dog whistle?” Why is it that so many white males in the fire service still hear “diversity” and their Pavlovian Response is “Diversity is fine, but not at the expense of quality and competence?

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never heard any fire service leader of any sized organization say, “We need to diversify so that we can provide a lower level to the people we serve, you know, the ones who pay the bills.”

And yet some of those same people who hear the “dog whistle” apparently have no problem with women and other minorities being harassed and bullied to the point they leave the fire service.

They apparently don’t have a problem when some of those same people seek justice through the legal system, because their “dream” was taken from them.

And they apparently don’t have a problem when that legal action results in a financial settlement of $1 million or more, money that could have bought new apparatus, equipment, or better health care for the department’s members.

It’s up to the members of the dominant group (the white males who still make up the majority in fire department and whose predecessors wrote the rules and regulations and created the culture) to make the changes in those rules, regulations, and departmental culture that removes the barriers to those of the non-dominant group (anyone who’s not a white male) who seek to serve their community through the honorable profession of being a firefighter.

Why is this still so difficult?

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 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].