When it comes to diversity in the fire service, it's ironic that there are many divergent opinions about what that is, and just as many on how to achieve it.
A panel discussion conducted a courageous conversation on diversity at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis this week. The panel included an African-American lieutenant, a Caucasian lieutenant who recently won a reverse discrimination lawsuit, a female chief and a retired Caucasian chief who is also a lawyer.
The discussion highlighted the complexity of the issue, the emotions that are connected with it and the passion with which some in the audience approach the topic. Each one had a different view - some radically different, some nuanced.
"Diversity is that point where we just don't notice the difference anymore," said Division Chief of Operations Cheryl Horvath, Northwest Fire District, Tucson, Ariz., one of the four invited panelists. Horvath is also the president of the board of trustees for The International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services.
"Diversity is that we embrace everybody into the team, Horvath said. "It's not a numbers game. You want a cohesive unit that is able to share thought and learn from each other."
The other panelists were Lt. Joseph Muhammad, White Plains, N.Y., who is president of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters; Lt. Frank Ricci of the New Haven, Conn. Fire Department, who is one of the "New Haven 20" of last year's reverse discrimination lawsuit; and Deputy Chief (Retired) John K. Murphy, of Eastside, Wash. Fire and Rescue, who is also a lawyer.
For more than an hour and half, the panelists discussed the thorny topic and fielded questions from the audience. Occasionally, the debate got heated as people spoke about how the issue affects them in personal ways.
In setting the stage for the discussion, Murphy gave a brief overview of why diversity is a hot button issue.
"Diversity is not well understood," he said. "It focuses too much on compliance and places too much emphasis on ethnicity and/or gender. When people think about inclusion and diversity they think about race immediately, then they think about gender."
But the fire service is so much more than that, he said.
"The demographic of our service are black, are white, are Asia, American Indian, Hindu, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, male, female," Murphy said. "We're short. We're tall. We're fat. We're skinny. We're unfed and some of us are in between. We are gay. We are lesbian. We are transgender. We are fathers. We are mothers. We are sons. We are daughters and brothers and sisters."
Murphy said the fire service is dealing with intolerance born out of ignorance, racism, prejudices, and jealously as well as overt and covert harassment.
"We all know things are happening," Murphy said. "Are we willing to step up and say this is enough?"
An African-American firefighter in the audience, from the Nashville, Tenn. area said he is the only minority in his department. There are no other Blacks, or women, or any other ethnic groups in his department.
"I'm it and they're not doing anything to get any more like me," he said. He added that he has felt firsthand the sting of discrimination when homeowners with emergencies bar him from entering their homes.
"And it has happened more than once," the man observed.
Lt. Ricci said he felt his pain and added that he has experienced discrimination at his job. Ricci successfully sued his city on the grounds that it should not have invalidated the test scores from a 2003 promotion exam because the city was worried that not enough minorities passed the exam.
"It's happening and now with you and what we've done to fix that problem is we've flipped the coin," Ricci said. He added that without standards and certified testing, the fire service will suffer.
"Everyone needs to be treated equally," Ricci said. "Just treat everyone the same. It's such a simple premise and I think it puts America back were America should be and it puts the fire service where the fire service needs to be, where merit matters."