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Why Do We Still Struggle with Diversity?

Issue 5 and Volume 3.

Leadership is hard to describe, but we clearly know it when we see it. A leader must be tough but fair, have a strong vision but remain open to others’ perspectives, and be able to bring people together and foster individuals. Leadership starts with the chief but certainly does not end there.

Because of good leaders, today’s fire service is undergoing tremendous change in critical issues impacting fire prevention, EMS delivery and firefighter health and safety. Chief officers, company officers and firefighters are standing together to argue that tradition and progress are not mutually exclusive. In fact, if we all do our part, if we act on what is right, and if we have the courage to lead, the combination of tradition and progress becomes quite powerful. All of this good news leads to one question: Why do we still struggle with diversity and inclusiveness?

Take a Stand

Whether we’re talking about hazing in the fire station, hiring and promotional practices, or simply how we treat people, discriminatory practices and exclusiveness prevent us from building high-quality, cohesive professional organizations that truly represent our communities. Thus, if we’re going to change fire service culture, each department must pay attention to recommended practices, and adopt them in a manner that strengthens the department internally, as well as its ability to serve its community.

In September 2006, after a series of discriminatory acts in several fire departments across the country, the IAFC board of directors unanimously endorsed a position paper on discrimination in the workplace that states that there should be “no tolerance for acts of inappropriate and illegal discriminatory behaviors” within any fire department. We recommend that all fire departments evaluate this stance, and adopt appropriate policies for their departments.

When the IAFC takes a stand like this, we take it seriously and practice it at the national level. Yet even an organization like the IAFC—whose founding leaders included an African-American, who inducted the first female member in the 1930s, and in the past several years has undertaken efforts to reflect our diverse community both in our appointments and our staff—sometimes struggles to convey the ideals we’re trying to practice.

A simple example is our efforts to project our commitment to diversity in the publications we produce. It’s difficult to find photos that don’t depict the “same four white guys.” We held a photo contest that we hoped would produce photos that reflect the full range of the fire service community and the ideals to which we committed, including diversity, safety and correct operational protocols. We received very few photos of female, African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic personnel, particularly at the command level. How do we reconcile the actions we are taking to promote diversity with our inability to project our commitment to the community?

Working Together

Like any other issue, we can only find the answers together. Chiefs must set an example by not tolerating inappropriate or illegal behavior. Everyone, especially chiefs and company officers, should follow the chief’s lead and demonstrate leadership to their peers. Departments should look to reflect their community in both what they do and how they project themselves to their community, including making sure diversity is projected in publications. Organizations should work together to support a fire service that is inclusive and celebrates what everyone brings to the table.

I challenge each of you to walk the talk and do what is right because it is the right thing to do. The example that chief and company officers set will serve as a role model for the department and the community.