Diversity in the Fire Service - Why Does It Matter?

May 1, 2008
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 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:


  • 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


  • 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


  • 18% of Seattle's adult residents are foreign born
  • 22% speak a language other than English at home -- 129 languages are spoken in Seattle public schools
  • 16% are 60 years or older
  • 19.4% of King County residents are disabled
  • 12.2% are below the poverty line

Data-Collection Process

FIRE 20/20 researchers gathered qualitative data through 20 fire-EMS focus groups and 43 multicultural community focus groups with a total of 726 participants. We also conducted 124 individual interviews with fire-EMS personnel and multicultural community members. Quantitative data was collected through 1,391 written and online surveys. We also shot 40 hours of video interviews with both fire-EMS personnel and multicultural community members.

We had planned to do a probability sampling procedure on demographic data related to firefighter and civilian injuries and loss of life in multicultural communities based on the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). While NFIRS provides fields for demographic data, those fields are not required, so early in the project, we came up with our first recommendation: Require the completion of demographic data for NFIRS and add demographic data fields to the Near Miss Reporting System!

"If the fire service is truly committed to reducing firefighter and civilian injuries and loss of life, and enhancing prevention efforts in multicultural communities, we need to first understand the value of demographic data and then take the time to collect, analyze and strategically use it in our planning, resource allocation and prevention programs." -- Ron Siarnicki, executive director, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF).

Our Findings

The good news first: The fire departments rated themselves high for their quality of service and the multicultural communities agreed.

Issues and challenges were grouped into three major categories:

  • Language barriers
  • Few proactive relationships
  • Trust issues
  • Knowledge gaps
  • Language barriers. In the three case study sites, most fire department focus groups and nearly all of the firefighter interviewees identified growing challenges with customers who did not speak English. First, locating a translator (family member, neighbor or the Language Line) and then obtaining the necessary information through the translator took time. Some fire personnel expressed that it was the customer's problem; i.e., "People should learn English when they come to the U.S.A." Other firefighters identified that they couldn't be expected to know all of the languages in their community.

    Community focus group participants also identified language barriers as a challenge. They requested more interpreters, fire prevention materials in their languages (written, radio and TV) and safety regulations translated for their businesses. Many of the multicultural community members offered to assist the fire department with written and on-scene translation.

  • Few proactive relationships. "I have never been to a fire station. I have never been invited. In our culture, it is not polite to go to someone's house without an invitation and the firehouse is where the firefighters live."

    While Austin, Milwaukee and Seattle all have some community outreach programs, these programs were not developed in consultation with the communities multicultural leaders and therefore didn't foster partnerships in promoting fire prevention and life safety. In many cultures, this relationship needs to be initiated by the leader of the fire department to the leader of that multicultural community.

    "My people are coming from Ethiopia. When you say fire department, I only know they come and fight fire. Our community was established in 1994. Nobody is coming and talking to us. We don't know what carbon monoxide is. People are dying of that. There is no information."

  • Trust issues. Trust issues surfaced from both fire personnel and from the multicultural community. From the fire departments' perspective, 67% of the 739 respondents reported fire and EMS services were being misused. "Baby aid" calls, "frequent fliers" and other non-emergency calls took them out of true emergency service and were a source of growing frustration. Many saw gaps in the health-care system as a source of this service challenge.

    One firefighter summed it up, "Sometimes we feel like we are operating a social services agency -- a kind of medical services for those that don't fit anywhere else." Another first responder articulated the associated risks. "We get lots of "baby-aid" calls from other cultures -- they call just because a baby won't stop crying. ...In reality, they are putting the public at risk because it takes us out of service for other calls."

    Although firefighting is continually touted as one of our country's most respected careers, 42% of the fire personnel reported that customers they served didn't trust them "all the time" or "frequently." Multicultural community members in all three cities concurred that many people in their communities don't trust firefighters. These trust issues often resulted in people not calling 911 in a true emergency. Distrust generally had little to do with "firefighters" per se, but rather issues with authority, lack of knowledge about what firefighters do, cultural issues and lack of ongoing relationships.

    Some reasons why members of multicultural communities didn't call 911: fear of uniforms/authority; fear that police will arrive with the fire department; fear that their language won't be understood; cultural embarrassment for causing the emergency; fear that sexual identity will result in mistreatment; fear of deportation; and inability to pay for services

  • Knowledge gaps. From the fire departments' perspective, emergency responders acknowledged lacking important knowledge about multicultural practices, behaviors and social norms that impacted the safe and effective delivery of services. They also reported that their multicultural communities were uninformed and confused about fire services and lacked basic fire and life safety knowledge and skills.

    The multicultural communities consistently agreed they were uninformed and confused about fire services and if there were costs for those services. They also acknowledged lacking basic fire and life safety knowledge. A number of community focus group participants in each of the cities expressed they didn't know that the fire department provided emergency medical services and were confused about why a fire truck showed up when they called for medical help.

Understanding Leads to Safety

During the course of the study, FIRE 20/20 developed and implemented a focus group strategy and process to gather data. An unexpected outcome of these focus groups was opportunities for the fire departments to build bridges into their multicultural communities. New dialogues started, new relationships were developed, new partnerships were forged, new prevention programs were conceived, and new fire department community liaison positions were created. Fire departments learned that the multicultural community leaders were concerned about fire and life safety and wanted to be involved, but had never been contacted in a meaningful way.

One of the biggest payoffs of this outreach process was the two-way learning that occurred. Some examples:

  • In Austin, a Latino focus group identified home-altar candle fires as a growing problem. One member told researchers that putting the altar candles in a bowl of water reduced risk and suggested that the Austin Fire Department involve clergy to deliver safety messages because they are trusted by the community.
  • The Orthodox Jewish community in Milwaukee suggested to the fire department that it conduct a community burn ceremony for Passover where the community would come to a safe burning location in their neighborhood to burn all of their leavened products before Passover. This program reduced fire risks and opened opportunities for further fire and life safety education.
  • In Seattle, the community focus groups helped to facilitate relationships and conversations with the growing African population who had experienced a number of carbon monoxide deaths and injuries due to heating and cooking with charcoal indoors after a severe storm.
  • Muslim focus groups suggested that fire departments work with the Imams (Islam spiritual leaders) to target a smoke alarm program right before Ramadan for greater impact.
  • A homeless focus group suggested that a firefighter serve on the homeless task force and teach CPR to homeless people so they could help each other.
  • A Hmong focus group offered to help firefighters learn about their culture and offered to serve as on-scene translators and cultural educators.


"There are predictable risks for having a fire service that doesn't reflect the community," Gordon Graham stated at the recent International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Human Resources conference in New Orleans. While such substantive change takes time, fire departments can take a lead role in opening the dialogue and building proactive, positive relationships with the multicultural community leaders and their respective communities now! Trust follows dialogue and relationships. With trust, there's the foundation for two-way learning, closing the knowledge gaps and improving targeted recruitment efforts.

For more information about FIRE 20/20 and resources to help your department safely and effectively serve multicultural communities, visit http://fire2020.org or e-mail [email protected].

LARRY SAGEN is the founder and executive director of FIRE 20/20, a research and education non-profit helping fire departments to increase their outreach efforts and enhance emergency services, fire and life safety programs, and recruitment efforts in multicultural communities. Prior to forming FIRE 20/20, Sagen worked with departments throughout the U.S. and Canada in the areas of entry and promotional testing and teamwork training. He has a master's degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis. TONY PINI retired as fire chief of the Santa Rosa, CA, Fire Department in 2003. He served in four California departments over 33 years, including 16 years as fire chief in Santa Rosa and five years as fire chief in Santa Cruz. Pini serves on the board of directors for FIRE 20/20 and is a member of the IAFC Human Relations Committee. He holds an MPA degree from San Jose State University and a bachelor of arts degree from the University of San Francisco. Pini is past chair of the California Fire Chiefs Cultural Diversity Committee and has taught management courses at the National Fire Academy.

Fire Department
Ratings Multicultural
Communities Ratings Fire
61%/29% Excellent/Good
67%/25% EMS
61%/33% Excellent/Good

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