Greater diversity in the fire service is an imperative for our institutions, our society and our public safety. By the year 2042, today's "minority" demographics will represent the majority of our population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic and Asian populations will nearly...
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Greater diversity in the fire service is an imperative for our institutions, our society and our public safety. By the year 2042, today's "minority" demographics will represent the majority of our population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic and Asian populations will nearly triple and the African American community will nearly double in size. These demographic shifts will significantly impact the day-to-day emergency services and prevention efforts of fire/EMS.
FIRE 20/20's research, funded by a Fire Prevention and Safety Grant, showed that both first responders and civilians are at greater risk in multicultural communities because of communications challenges, trust issues, lack of ongoing relationships and knowledge gaps. These challenges present compelling reasons why individual fire departments and the U.S. fire service as a whole need to address the importance of recruiting and retaining the next generation of qualified, diverse, inclusive, safe and competent female and male fire-EMS personnel.
We are a legacy profession. A significant number of firefighters were brought up in firefighting families or had friends who encouraged them to join. This is natural because we share what we love with the people we hang out with. And the people we hang out with tend most often to be like us. So how do we get from where we are now to greater diversity?
Because of the large number of boomer retirements and the generational shift taking place for another four to seven years, we have an opportunity to create a tipping point with Generation Y (also known as Gen Y, Millennials, Gen Why, Net Generation) -- born between 1980 and 2000, numbering around 100 million or a third of our total population, and considered to be the largest and most diverse generation in our history. Having grown-up with multiculturalism, Gen Ys are more inclusive than any previous generation. They're also more family-, more civic-, more service- and more team-oriented. Gen Ys have the potential of enabling us to grow a pretty phenomenal next generation of fire-EMS personnel.
What the Leaders Say
We interviewed six fire service leaders to get their take on what they believe are some important fundamental underpinnings for recruiting and retaining diversity.
- It starts at the top. All six leaders agreed that if a department is committed to diversity and inclusion, it requires a commitment from the top of the organization.
"First and foremost, the head of the organization must be committed to the diversity of the organization in a very real way," says Madison, WI, Fire Chief Debra Amesqua.
Colorado Springs, CO, Fire Chief Manny Navarro agrees. "To affect change as a fire chief, you have to express your position very clearly and very succinctly to everyone," Navarro says. "There's no room for ambiguity!"
Amesqua believes that actualizing a commitment to diversity requires her personally recruiting on a regular basis. "I don't care if it's a two-station department or 100-station department -- it's critical that the CEO is out there recruiting."
Amesqua infuses the values of inclusion, caring, compassion and teamwork on a daily basis. She personally interviews all candidates, teaches the class on sexual harassment and diversity, and while getting input from her training officer and personnel chief, is the only person who makes the final selection.
"I want to hire extremely well-rounded individuals who are prepared emotionally and physically for the challenges of the future -- the challenge of diverse people within our community," she says. "We're getting more and more diverse. People are coming here from all around the world. They're bringing cultural norms which we're not familiar with and we're in their homes every day. So we've got a steep learning curve."
"Starting at the top" includes the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) local leadership.