Most people can distinctly recall their early years in the fire service. At shift change, hearing the senior members talk about how the fire department used to be, the fires they ran, and inevitably some degree of discussion about their retirement plans. Those informal chats help to develop an aspiring officer’s leadership craft in more ways than anyone could imagine. Of specific interest was the burning question, “What are we going to do when all the good officers retire?” For some, the answer is quite simple–we are going to develop the next generation of good officers, and that is exactly what we have done. Experience and institutional knowledge are very important elements of leadership, and those lessons should be passed on at every level, but we should not “copy and paste” our next generation of leaders, or we will fail to evolve. Should we fail to evolve, we will not retain the public trust and support that are critical to the sustainability of our organizations.
There is no arguing that leaders in today’s fire and EMS agencies are faced with many challenges. From changes in building construction to the addition of highly combustible and toxic synthetic furnishings, an increase in the volume of vehicle traffic and distracted drivers on our highways, and active threats of domestic and foreign terrorism, our responders are faced with a different set of circumstances than their predecessors. As leaders, we are tasked with sending all personnel home at the end of the shift, and that is an awesome responsibility. We need to slow our responses, increase our situational awareness, and carefully calculate our risks. All things considered, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that our personnel remain our single most valuable resource. We must invest in and embrace all those who serve under our commands. To do this, we must expand our knowledge of diversity and inclusion to understand how that affects our teams and the communities we serve.
When we mention the word diversity, people generally drift toward race and gender, and although they are two very important attributes, diversity is much more complex than that. The management and leadership community refer to this complex set of factors as the primary and secondary dimensions of diversity. One of the best illustrations of this is the “Diversity Wheel” from the Johns Hopkins University Diversity Leadership Council’s Web page . The primary dimensions define us by what can be seen–such as race, gender, and age–while the secondary dimensions are those that evolve and change over time–including socioeconomic status, education, and life experience. We must respect our differences and capitalize on them at the same time. Knowing more about the life experience and personal background of the firefighter riding in the jump seat behind you could mean the difference in how you approach and handle your next call for service. It will certainly define your ability to connect with your customers; after all, our personnel should be representative of the communities we serve. One technique to gaining that understanding is to encourage open dialogue and express a genuine desire to learn more about your team.
Consider this: You respond routinely to the same home for a male who has overdosed. As the opioid epidemic swells, your crew has become hardened to this type of call and lacks compassion. You have a discussion at the kitchen table and learn that your rookie comes from a family of addiction. She tells her story of the pain she felt as she grew up in this environment and lost her father to drugs. What about the Army veteran who rarely speaks of his life between military discharge and joining the fire service as a paramedic? When you respond to the homeless camp and dismiss the guy who “chooses” to live in the woods instead of getting a job and being self-sustained in society, you learn your paramedic was a homeless veteran because he struggled to reacclimatize to the social norms upon returning from multiple tours of duty.
Would your attitude have been different on either of these calls had you learned more about your crew’s diverse backgrounds and the effects it had on them? Would either of these responders be the better advocate on your crew when responding to these calls because of their individual life experiences? These are two very real examples of why we must be well informed about who is working alongside of us and the value that their life experience can have on how well we treat and serve the people in our communities. Having open discussions about our own diverse backgrounds can help each of us understand the complexities of the individuals who make up the community. These are real people with real experiences who bring absolute diversity to our organizations and understanding them will make a profound difference in how we serve. We should never accept the idea that our personnel become cynical about the needs of our communities. The fact is that we are public servants, and we are called upon not only to mitigate emergencies but also to be advocates for those in need of additional resources. Fire service personnel are the first level of interventionist for our communities. We are trusted to make life decisions for total strangers, and we should do so with a high degree of social competence. Making sure our personnel have adequate tools for the job is paramount, and one of the most valuable tools is the knowledge that our members possess. It is our responsibility as line and chief officers to ensure that training and education on diversity and inclusion occur long before the alert tones sound. Before we set out to train our team, we should ensure that we possess the necessary knowledge to help us lead this important change.
As leaders, we should seek to learn something new each day–and it’s okay if this subject is uncomfortable for you at first. Many times, we find that the root cause for avoidance of new concepts is as benign as a lack of confidence. When people lack confidence, they fail to reach a level of competence, which understandably generates discomfort. The good news is that we can overcome this comfort and confidence barrier by enhancing our own knowledge and education. Here are a few tips for developing your own knowledge on diversity and strategies to grow your own organization.
Start with yourself
The first step in understanding diversity is to review the “Diversity Wheel” and make a list delineating all your own unique diverse attributes–both primary and secondary. Using this list, conduct an audit of those attributes, thereby engaging in a moderate degree of self-reflection. Next, review your training portfolio relative to diversity, and compare that with your life experience. Utilizing that inventory of self and training, decide of your level of comfort and confidence as it relates to your knowledge regarding diversity. Finally, review this self-assessment to determine the areas in which you lack adequate knowledge of others. This information is critical to defining the areas in which you will require additional training and how effectively you connect to the various facets of your community.
Assess your community and response district
Utilizing online tools such as Census.gov or American Fact Finder, determine the primary dimensions of diversity directly correlating to your community. Look at information such as the gender ratio, age spectrum, race, and ethnicity factors. Next, identify the secondary dimensions within your response district such as socioeconomic status, housing configurations, and education levels. Seek additional information about your community through your local or state health department. Many times, these agencies can help to define the rate and areas impacted by public health issues like substance abuse or mental health concerns. After you define the factors that impact your community, seek to identify the resources available to assist you when needing to make a referral for service outside of the scope of emergency response mitigation. These are resources such as aging and youth services, addiction counseling, advocacy groups, and community outreach programs. Last, review your call history to determine any trends and to begin forecasting future needs of your service delivery. Gaining a better understanding of the construct of your community can help you to connect your personnel’s diverse attributes to the people you serve. To accomplish this, you will need to inventory your assets–that is, the diversity of your personnel.
Review your personnel
First and foremost, develop a relationship of mutual trust and respect with your personnel, understanding that trust takes time. Conduct a cursory review of each person assigned to your shift or company. What do you perceive that you know about each of them–that is, what are the primary dimensions of diversity that you can readily define about them? Then attempt to gain a better understanding of your team by inquiring about their past life experiences; these are the unknown or secondary dimensions of diversity. Important information may include things like where they were raised, their family structure, level of education, and any special circumstances they have faced. Remember to be empathetic and that this information sharing is a two-way street. Use extreme caution so as not to judge, especially when someone’s life experience doesn’t align with “traditional” fire service cultures. Use this information to determine how your team best intersects with the community you serve and begin to strategize how to efficiently deploy your team’s diverse talents to make those connections.
Bring your team full circle
Begin by encouraging open dialogue among your crew. Set ground rules as necessary to maintain respect and dignity. Act as the facilitator for introducing new information about race, gender, and various life experiences in an open forum. Discuss who is best aligned to interact with the various people living in your community. Identify any areas in which your team would benefit from additional training and education. Consider training opportunities through any available resources such as state fire training academies, state Civil Rights Commission outreach programs, local colleges that offer noncredit professional development courses, your human resources training division, online resources, and webinars. Beyond taking advantage of training, consider attending cultural events within your community and actively seek opportunities to engage with every facet of your community on a routine basis. This interaction will be mutually beneficial to your team and its customers.
Following this four-step method will help fire and emergency service leaders to establish a culture of inclusion within their department. By being reflective of the communities we serve, we are better equipped to connect with and serve our constituents. Our personnel remain our number-one resource, and if we dedicate time to periodically hosting open discussions about the value of diversity and inclusion, we serve to strengthen our capabilities as a primary response agency in our community. Fire and emergency medical service departments are a microcosm of society. If we can lead the charge of valuing diversity and inclusion, our teams will grow stronger and our communities will be safer and more resilient.
Jennifer Aubert-Utz is an assistant chief and an 18-year veteran with the Baltimore County (MD) Fire Department. Aubert-Utz graduated from Westminster Senior High School in 1991. Shortly thereafter, she developed an interest in emergency medical services and obtained her EMT-A certification in 1992. Aubert-Utz graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2011 with a B.S. degree and in 2012 with a M.S. degree, both in management with an emphasis in public safety leadership. She completed the Executive Fire Officer program through the National Fire Academy in 2015.