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."
A woman firefighter from the audience approached the microphone and took Ricci to task for his comments about equality.
She said the department where she serves has only one bathroom and, after she decided to have children and breastfeed, she needed to use the bathroom to express milk. She asked Ricci to find another word to use besides equal.
"We're not exactly equal, because men don't nurse," she said. "...I fight fire the same. I save lives the same, but we're not exactly equal... I'll wrestle you and kick your ass any day."
Lt. Muhammad said society has developed a misperception that being black means that one must be anti-white.
"What would it look like if the chief superintendent of the U.S. Fire Administration, Kelvin Cochran, or other chiefs of major cities such as Philadelphia, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Miami, Birmingham, New Orleans and others... What would it look like if they were all anti-white. The thing is, nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, that would be anti-American."
Muhammad also said another misconception is that African-Americans are monolithic. Rather, he said they are just as diverse as any race or ethnicity with unique multi-cultural experiences.
He also fought back the age-old myth that adding blacks to a fire department roster would "reduce the standards and lower the level of productivity."
"Certainly nothing could be further from the truth," Muhammad said. "We have always been committed to excellence and always will be."
Muhammad said that society must remember its past for the sake of putting content into context.
If you lose your history, you have lost your memory," Muhammad said. "If you lose your memory, you have lost your mind," he said.
Both Muhammad and Horvath said they found it ironic that some people like Ricci use the same language used by our predecessors in the fight against discrimination.
"It's interesting to me that we heard some of the same words that have been heard for the past 50 or 60 years, but it's interesting because they're coming from a white male," Horvath said. "The issue is that some of us receive death threats for saying those same things, while others are heroes for saying it."
Ricci said that when people call 911, they don't care about race or gender or anything else when they're having an emergency, they just want someone to come and help.
That comment caused Larry Sagen, the executive director Fire 20/20, to jump to his feet to refute his claim.
Sagen said studies have proven that people do care who shows up at their doorstep.
"That is not a true statement," said Sagen. "When they call 911 they don't know what's going on. They don't know why a fire truck shows up. If you don't know the culture, or you don't speak the language it's not the same. I'll just disagree with you."
And when it comes to women in the fire service, Horvath said studies show they are about 3.7 percent of the fire service. That number is troubling in itself she said, but what is more troubling is that 17 percent of the workforce are women in other non-traditional professions.
"We need to talk about that gap," she said. "Why do we have it?" She said she's had fire chiefs tell her they would love to have women on the department, but they can't find anyone.
"That's interesting because we can seem to find women who want to carry machine guns and those who will pour cement, but we can't seem to find any who want to be firefighters."
Horvath said she's often inundated with questions from fire chiefs who want to boost female numbers in their departments. But why? Often the reason is that the department doesn't want to get in trouble, she said, and that's not good enough.
"If you really want women in your fire department, you have to want them to come and help your organization," she said. "If you don't really want women in your fire department, don't come asking me how to get more because you are really wasting my time."
For as long as Horvath has been in the fire service, she has been questioned about why, and whether she has ulterior motives to take over the fire service.
"I've gotten to the point where I just say yeah, we are because you've screwed it up so badly," she said, noting that she's not known for her patience.
"If you want women on [your department], you need to want them for the right reasons or you are going to lose them," she said. "... It's a cultural piece that needs to start from the top."