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Diversity in the Fire Service - An important discussion

When you examine the cause of litigation in the fire service there is one important fact that we need to address. We sue ourselves internally as opposed to be sued by outside sources with the following statics obtained from Curt Varone’s website.

  • A fire department is 9.1 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate than by our customers: A fire chief is 12 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate than by a customer: A chief officer is 7.6 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate/colleague than by our customer: A company officer is 5.4 times more likely to be sued by a subordinate/colleague than by our customer and a firefighter is 1.5 times more likely to be sued by a colleague than by a customer.
  • Our employees have become our biggest liability.

The demographics of the fire service are: Predominately male: 3.5 % women (career) 7% (including volunteer): 82% Caucasian: 9.5% Hispanic or Latino: 7.7% Black or African American; 07% Asian.

There are numerous laws protecting firefighters and fire service employers. The main ones are found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and include: Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA): the Civil Rights Act of 1991 Amendments: Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA): Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA): Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended (ADA): Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) and most states have Human Rights Division that have been enacted to protect employees.

Under federal law, employers generally cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of: race, gender, pregnancy, religion, national origin, disability (physical or mental), and age - for workers over 40, military service or affiliation, bankruptcy or bad debts, genetic information and citizenship status.

What is diversity? Organizations tend to believe that diversity in the workplace is important, only 30 percent have an agreed definition of "diversity," according to a recent Society for Human Resource Management. Survey respondents emphasized that the field is not well-defined or understood, it focuses too much on compliance, and places too much emphasis on ethnicity and/or gender report. ”When people think about inclusion and diversity, people think of race immediately. Then they may think of gender, but there really are eight dimensions in diversity including Race, Culture and Ethnicity, Age, Religion and Social Economic Status, Disabilities and Sexual Orientation or Lifestyle.

Diversity defined in its broadest context as ‘recognizing, appreciating, valuing, and utilizing the unique talents and contributions of all individuals’ regardless of age, career experience, color, communication style, culture, disability, educational level or background, employee status, ethnicity, family status, function, gender, language, management style, marital status, national origin, organizational level, parental status, physical appearance, race, regional origin, religion, sexual orientation, thinking style, speed of learning and comprehension and other factors.

Diversity involves respecting people’s differences.  When diversity is supported, everyone is allowed to maintain his/her individuality.  People are not forced to change how they live, speak, look, or think so as to be more like the majority.”

There are two reasons to do diversity training. One is to prevent lawsuits and the other is to create an inclusive environment in which each member of the community is valued, respected, and can fully contribute their talents. That includes reducing bias and increasing the diversity of the employee and management population. Categories are dehumanizing. They simplify the complexity of a human being, so focusing people on the categories increases their prejudice. Instead, your staff must do their work with a diverse set of individuals, not categories of people.

Why is Diversity Important to the Fire Service? Benefits of workforce diversity & inclusion provides improved understanding of those you work for, with, and around, creates a work environment that allows everyone to reach their full potential and provides multiple perspectives on problem solving. Most importantly it reduces complaints and grievances. Diversity drives innovation as diverse groups are more productive. It also reflects the community demographics.

What does this mean for the Fire Service? Diversity enhances performance and productivity; it is a business, economic, and social imperative in the 21st century. To be a high performing organization, diversity should be broadly defined by traditional EEO demographics, social, cognitive, and behavioral perspectives. To be effective, diversity management must be strategically implemented and aligned with mission and goal statements.

Diversity requires investment and attention in order to be effective and intolerance and insensitivity to diversity breeds disastrous and costly results; agencies must empower employees and guarantee their rights. Diversity principles must be incorporated in all aspects of an organization’s performance culture, including: communications, group work processes, recruitment and retention strategies, succession planning and strategic planning

Our Diverse Workforce. What makes us unique? Biology, which determines gender, body size; skin, hair and eye color. Ethnicity and culture, the customs, language and sense of identity often shared by people with similar roots. Family life, including family size, values traditions and social class. Beliefs, ones religion or philosophy of life. Geography, how one feels about being from a certain neighborhood, city or region. Experiences, in school, work, travel, recreation and with other people. Language diversity often causes employees, employers and customers to misunderstand one another with different languages in the workplace are a growing issue. Cultural Heritage determines what beliefs, learned behaviors and language pass through the generations to each individual and Religion often cause conflict due to “off-time” issues related to specific religious events of a particular religion.

There are more women (55%) work than in any other time period in American history. Age as your new employees are your millennials (1982-2002) and is the most racially diverse generation in U.S. history. About 43 percent of millennials are non-white, due in large part to the wave of largely Latino and Asian immigration in the last decades and this is the end of the baby boomer era (1946 – 1962). Finally, disability with eight percent of the population is affected by a disability. 

Benefits of Diversity. There are fewer lawsuits, morale is high, creativity and productivity increases. Quality workers are attracted to the organization and the decision-making process improves. Decision-making speed improves with more customers are reached.

Are we Melting Pot or Tossed Salad?  Organizations today have become a global melting pot of people from multiple locations, cultures and backgrounds. Oftentimes, what comes to mind when we think of diversity is ethnicity, gender, age or religion. However, diversity encompasses a more broad perspective. It can highlight qualities in others different than our own, the perceptions we have of others, the approach in our interactions and other defining characteristics that set us apart from everyone else. To reap the business benefits of diversity, you must employ inclusive work strategies.

Communication. How does communication play into this discussion? All communication is filtered through your cultural perspective to include: age, national origin, race, sexual orientation, religion, disability to name a few. Communication is a 2-way process. Communication training is important to create a diverse workplace. People learned to listen and speak with each other — no matter the difference — which is the key to creating a vibrant and inclusive environment. As communicator we need to speak to the person, not “at” the person. We need to learn to listen and employees with diverse backgrounds have different ways of interpreting signs, languages and other formalities. More specifically, there are differences in how they communicate, make decisions, act toward authority and approach conflict.

Managing a diverse workforce has its advantages, not only in terms of the return on investment, but also employee engagement, teamwork and general productivity with a corresponding reduction of conflict.

Culture. Do we change culture to create a diverse workplace? Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, arts, music, religion, cuisine and social habits. Again, the problem with defining culture is that no one clearly defines what they mean by "culture," and when they do they usually get it wrong. Virtually no one has read the original research that shows why culture — when clearly defined — is so important, how it is formed, and how it changes. In general, cultural stereotypes present great resistance to change and to their own redefinition. Culture, often appears fixed to the observer at any one point in time because cultural mutations occur incrementally and cultural change is a long-lasting process.  

Changing the Fire Department Culture. All cultures are inherently predisposed to change and the Fire Department creates its own culture for many reasons to include the date of Incorporation, firefighter belief systems, unchallenged actions by firefighters and the old saying of “we’ve always done it this way.” Where does culture in your fire station come from? It usually comes from the founders of the group and for whatever reason, they value certain things and behave in ways that seem to help the group succeed. There is a fierce resistance to change due to the habits and integration of cultural traits

As leaders we need to understand our cultural capital which involve people and their belief systems. These cultural capital influences include the role of parenting, families and close associates; organizations such as schools and workplaces; communities and neighborhoods; and wider social influences such as the media. Cultural capital may manifest into specific values, attitudes or social norms which in turn guide the behavioral intentions that individuals adopt in regard to particular decisions or courses of action. Culture change starts from within in order to be accepted

Recruitment and Retention and Onboarding.  In order to get a quality firefighters we need to cast the net wide. Our recruitment outreach efforts should target a wide variety of academic, professional and community organizations for the most talented and qualified persons in diverse groups. Look to schools, shopping centers, health safety fairs, churches and other areas of public assembly and sue all of your firefighters to promote the department and recruit candidates. You must follow-up with those candidates who expressed an interest in joining your department and create a community wide reputation that your department is a great place to work. Have a comprehensive job description, validated written examination and use a standardized physical ability test. Perform psychological testing on all new candidates during the hiring process, testing for compatibility within the organization.

It is important that the department trains its new firefighters to a “community standard” which is your immediate “in-house” community and not the “fire service community” at large. Have a mission statement which is clear, logical and relevant. Create Enforceable: ethical codes, a code of conduct, an honor code and train to these standards.

The department needs to hire right, create an environment that is open and inclusive and be fair. Smart organizations commit to social and cultural changes and you have to appreciate your employees. A department needs to have constant training and constant reinforcement of skills and present new challenges. Leaders must communicate frequently about the issues affecting the department and have your staff create the solution to a problem.

The Diversity Challenge. Finally diversity is about empowering people. It makes an organization effective by capitalizing on all of the strengths of each employee. Diversity is understanding, valuing, and using the differences in every person. Diversity best practices include: leadership commitment, effective communication and transparency, equitable employment practices, continuous learning and career development. Leaders need to engage in continuous coaching and mentoring and early conflict resolution. Leadership must also understand the federal law's preventing discrimination and understand how policy can reinforce the existing law.

Listen to the words of Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria who had an important message for U.S. Air Force Academy cadets at a moment of crisis related to diversity.

Fire Officers and firefighters must have this same message. Do you agree?


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