Recruiting & Retaining Diversity

Larry Sagan interviews six fire service leaders to get their take on what they believe are some important fundamental underpinnings for recruiting and retaining diversity.


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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"There's a pretty significant turnover rate for chiefs," says Chief Richard "Smokey" Dyer of the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department. "We want change to stick and not be dependent on the tenure of a particular chief. So since 2000, we've used a labor/management process in the hope and design that changes that are made are not just the chief's but are those of the whole department. Trust is one of the sub-components of that relationship but so is the sharing of power."

Dyer adds, "Before I came, we were averaging 150 grievances a year. A big portion of labor's and management's time was handling the grievances and being in an adversarial relationship to determine who had done what wrong. Our energy was consumed with the battle. There's no time for progress or change. So I came to this conclusion: A consensus decision that we would agree to and implement and would last longer than me is better than the decision I think is best that would last no longer than me."

- Work from the inside out. A team-oriented, diverse department is like a well-oiled piece of apparatus -- it functions effectively both on the inside and the outside. If a department is going to attract and retain diverse firefighters and paramedics, it needs to be a welcoming working and living environment for everyone. That's different from being tolerant and being nice. Tolerance and being nice are surface behaviors. As Deputy Chief Robert Oliver of the Redmond, WA, Fire Department explains, "Building meaningful relationships and effective teams require honest communication beyond the limits of formalities, niceties and defense mechanisms."

Supporting Diversity

Oliver gives training on relationship skills and considers it a way to put in place an environment that supports diversity.

"You have to create an environment that supports people being who they are," Oliver says. "My training on relationship skills -- acceptance, handling rejection, mechanisms to deal with different people -- is focused on successful strategies that are not damaging. Anytime you have different people coming together there's sniffing around and some adjustments that have to take place. That doesn't have to be cruel. We can have acceptance rituals."

- Relationships are key. Plain and simple, recruiting is all about relationships. Relationships take time to develop and nurture. Signing up applicants by category solely for the purpose of making diversity numbers doesn't cut it. On an annual basis, Amesqua sends out a notice to line personnel asking them to let her know about someone who they want to work with for the next 20 to 30 years.

"They not only have to put their names and reputations on the line," explains Amesqua. "They have to help those who they want to succeed. They become de facto mentors. I believe that if an individual really wants to shine in recruit school, he or she would bring a woman or man of color to the table. In other words: Don't just tell me you value diversity, demonstrate it."

Relationships also play an important role in breaking down the barriers of prejudice.

"It's really easy to dislike someone when you don't know anything about the person," says Navarro. "Once you do and come to care and value who he or she is, the differences -- skin color, religion, sexual orientation -- become a 'so what!'"

For Chapel Hill, NC, Fire Chief Dan Jones, the importance of relationships applies to the local government and throughout the community as a whole.

"I've been blessed with supportive city managers," Jones says. "I see myself as part of the overall city management team and am always looking for ways where the fire department can step in and provide added value. That puts us out in the community in a visible way and supports both recruitment and prevention."

- Out-of-the box thinking. "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." That quotation is often attributed to Albert Einstein. While not meant to be taken literally, it's a good reminder that in recruiting and retaining diversity, we need to try different things.

"We're a member of the Chamber of Commerce," Jones says. "It gives us access to a tremendous amount of information. As a member, we get the e-mail list and membership list. When we have recruitment information or prevention information or emergency management notification information, we can use the chamber's e-mail blast. We get immediate access to the business communities' communication network."