Diversity in the Fire Service - Why Does It Matter?

Larry Sagen and Tony Pini discuss issues and challenges that increase risk to firefighters & multicultural communities.


Why should a department care if firefighters and paramedics reflect the diversity of the communities they serve? A recent study funded by a Fire Prevention and Safety Research Grant and conducted by the nonprofit FIRE 20/20 indicated that fire departments and members of the multicultural communities...


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Why should a department care if firefighters and paramedics reflect the diversity of the communities they serve? A recent study funded by a Fire Prevention and Safety Research Grant and conducted by the nonprofit FIRE 20/20 indicated that fire departments and members of the multicultural communities they serve may be at greater risk and that fire prevention programs are not as effective as they could be because of language barriers, few proactive relationships, trust issues and knowledge gaps.

The handwriting is on the wall. The multicultural fabric of our country is changing, and changing quickly. As Dorothy observed in the Land of Oz, "Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore." (And if the truth be known, the demographics are changing in Kansas, just like they are in the rest of the country.) Friend of the fire service Gordon Graham explains it's all about managing the risk: "If it's predictable, it's preventable." So let's look at some of the predictions.

According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, our country's minorities will become the majority by or before 2050 with non-Hispanic whites declining to about 47% of the total U.S. population. Both the Hispanic/Latino population and the Asian population are projected to nearly triple, with Hispanic/Latinos comprising 29% and Asians making up about 9% of our country's total population. The African American population is projected to nearly double and make up about 14% of the total population.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2006 American Community Survey, nearly 20% of U.S. households speak a language other than English at home. More than 12% of our current population is foreign born and that is expected to grow to about 19% by 2050, the Pew Research Center found. The greatest impact is being felt in and around metropolitan areas; however, the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire recently released a study reporting that small towns and rural communities in the Southwest, Northwest, Midwest, South and Southeast were also experiencing increased growth in immigrant populations.

Cultural use of fire (such as with candles and incense), cultural cooking, gender-to-gender contact and respect issues, multiple generations living in one household, trust issues and most important, a lack of knowledge about fire and life safety will contribute significantly to firefighter and civilian safety risks and service challenges. Specifics about some of the risks and how they can begin to be addressed are the focus of this article.

How It All Came About

Fire 20/20 is a nonprofit education and research organization. We are committed to helping fire departments recruit and retain a qualified, inclusive, safe and competent fire-EMS workforce. Just for the record, please note we said qualified and competent. This is not about lowering standards. A firefighter's job is too important and has too many inherent risks to lower standards. In 2006, FIRE 20/20 received a Fire Prevention and Safety Research Grant to study firefighter and civilian safety in multicultural communities. Sixteen metropolitan fire departments expressed interest in participating. Austin, TX, Milwaukee, WI, and Seattle, WA, were selected. Calgary, Alberta, served as an independently funded pilot study partially funded by International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).

Demographics for the three cities studied are as follows:

THE FACE OF AUSTIN

  • Non-whites grew 24.8% from 2000-2007
  • 18% of the overall population is foreign-born
  • 33.2% speak a language other than English at home -- 57 languages are spoken in Austin public schools
  • 6.6% are 60 years or older
  • 10.1% of Austin is disabled
  • 15.7% of Travis County families are below the poverty line

THE FACE OF MILWAUKEE

  • Non-whites grew from 36.6% in 1990 to 50% in 2000
  • 9.5% of the overall population was foreign-born
  • 18.5% speak a language other than English at home -- 45 languages are spoken in Milwaukee public schools
  • 9.3% are 60 years or older
  • 16.4% of Milwaukee is disabled
  • Over 46% are below the poverty line
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