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Intolerance, Discrimination and the Heart of the Fire Service

I am a white male, born in America, enjoying the rights and privileges afforded to me by circumstances. In hindsight, I was born lucky. I have not been discriminated against, as far as I know: I have not experienced segregation, treated as inferior, objectified, regulated, persecuted, nor denied entry or re-entry into my own country. I have white male privilege.

My ancestors immigrated from Ireland, Canada and Germany. I guess I am a mutt with at least three ancestral origins. I lucked out in the sense that I was born to a middle class couple right after WWII as a baby boomer. A two-parent family living in upstate New York essentially insulated me from the strife affecting the United States during the 50’s and 60’s where I worked on the farms, had a paper route, played sports in high school, dated and was on the prom court. I was an altar boy and attended Mass on Sunday. My life was and is especially blessed with a loving family, good health, fortune and opportunity.

I served our nation during Vietnam and after leaving the service, continued to serve my country as a firefighter for 32 years, essentially providing service to my country for over 36 years. I was equally fortunate to take advantage of America’s educational system quenching my thirst for knowledge and that opportunity provided me with the ability to practice both medicine and the law as a Physician’s Assistant and Attorney.

All these factors—many deriving from mere circumstance, not just merit on my part--insulated me from experiencing the racial strife, bigotry, and overt prejudices and discrimination that affects all human beings, our country today and my chosen profession as a firefighter.

Was I ignorant or did I chose not to look around or become involved? How can I, as one with privilege, stand idly by as my fellow Americans discriminate, on a daily basis, against women, people of color, Muslims, and immigrants?

My experiences after high school, while attending a college in which I mingled with many talented diverse individuals could have been an awakening to the inequity of treatment and opportunities afforded individuals with differing experiences and concepts from me.  While not so much an awakening, my awareness of the impact of our differences became acutely sensitized in the military where members of the armed services originated from different parts of the country where the privilege I enjoyed was not available to them. This period of the 60's and early 70's was rife with civil unrest – civil rights movement, protests against the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of our great leaders, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evars, Malcom X: truly great leaders whose untimely death shocked the consciousness of many Americans. I observed, even on the Navy ship where I was assigned, civil unrest among the sailors in the form of a race riot while at sea. It scared the hell out of me and made me more aware of the differences in the world.

The 60’s and the 70’s and all of its unrest, saw the birth of the first laws to prevent and prosecute discrimination in an attempt to create a safer, and more welcoming environment for most.

My awareness of the disparity of treatment continued to grow. After military service and entry into my profession as a firefighter, I witnessed how firefighters who did not look like me were treated differently than me.  African Americans, Women, Asians, gay and lesbian and transgender are currently suffering from discrimination in spite of the law.

This discrimination is largely being committed by people who look like me, who are generally married, originate from good families, have mothers, daughters or sisters, have a religious belief system, who are educated, who live in neighborhoods probably reflecting the “salad bowl” of America with people from all over the world. Possibly, these individuals may also live in closed neighborhoods that had a belief system that is intolerant of the different races, dress, immigration status, religious beliefs, relationships and other factors that make them intolerant. This intolerance is brought into the workplace making it miserable for all individuals in that station and for the department. Not only is the target of this intolerance affected, but the entire core belief system of our fire service is affected. It is called collateral damage destroying the fiber of society under which we exist.

My growing awareness has become an awakening. An awakening to all the intolerance, and discrimination and the role that I unwittingly played by not recognizing how my privilege affects how I see the opportunities available to other people who do not have my privilege. Don’t get me wrong, I work hard, but doors have opened to me because of being a white male. Many other hard working talented people do see those doors opened after banging on them asking to be considered, or once given the opportunity, experience challenges not presented to others.

What do we do about this intolerance and discrimination affecting our service and nation at this time? 

Personally, I have become more tolerant, protective and proactive. I question myself, my motives and my biases, and I try to put myself in the shoes of the other person. From this standpoint, I teach and write, have become politically active at the local and national level, and I donate my time and money to causes I believe that will increase the tolerance of Americans towards other Americans.

What do the collective “we” do to create a safe workplace for all of our firefighters?

  • Question your own biases. Be honest, you are not reporting this to someone else, it is an exercise for you. Then ask yourself how does that bias affect how you see and/or treat others.
  • Educate yourself as to the current issues creating this intolerant and discriminatory behavior.
  • Leadership needs to understand the culture of their fire departments and the various personalities you lead and command. What talent does each person bring to the table?
  • Leadership must take a proactive and strong stance against discrimination and prejudice. You must walk the talk.
  • Departments must have strong and enforceable policies.   All of your firefighters must be trained to those standards, practices, behaviors and tolerances. All fire personnel must be held to those standards.  
  • As a firefighter, if you see discriminatory activity occurring in your department, you must stand up to those individuals, protecting those that may be disempowered. Remember that to witness and not intervene in some way sends a message of acceptance.
  • Your responsibility as a firefighter is to self and others. Do not tolerate intolerance.

Regardless of your birthright, you undoubtedly made the best of your situation, but if you, like me, were born into fortunate circumstances, you should never forget it. This factor must not overshadow your respect towards your brother and sister firefighters regardless of their belief system, race, national origin, or sexual preference. Our differences does not make me better than you, nor you better than me. We are all human beings, and we are all firefighters.

The fire service as a profession has no room for discrimination, harassment, bullying or law/policy violations. We all depend on each other to go home at the end of each shift, create a safe workplace for all your department members. Protect each other and serve the community to the highest standard possible. That is all of our responsibilities, and that responsibility starts with you.

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