Leadership Lessons: Don’t Just Check the Box

April 1, 2016
Dr. David Griffin explains why we need to hire the right people to be firefighters—not the ones who simply fulfill a quota.

Diversity is a major topic of discussion in the fire service today. There are recruitment committees, educational initiatives and even modified hiring requirements to make our profession more diverse. While diversity is extremely important for the growth and development of an organization, it has to be done correctly with qualified people—not just individuals to “check the box.” When we simply “check the box,” we endanger the citizens and firefighters whom we are supposed serve and protect.

Who to hire

So how do we create the appropriate level of diversity in the fire service without endangering our people or compromising the integrity of the profession? First, we must provide mentoring and educational opportunities before we hire. We can’t just hire individuals to fill the need for diversity. We must hire them after we know that they have been properly trained and educated on the demands of being a firefighter mentally, physically and emotionally. Then, they must go through a hiring process that rewards individuals based on the same requirements. Not reduced requirements. Why is this important? Because an emergency scene doesn’t discriminate or lessen the tactical requirements for firefighters. It demands the BEST.  

I ride a rig so I know the importance of working with people who can do the job rather than just to fill a quota. The engine I ride responded to 2,700 calls last year and is considered the busiest engine company in South Carolina. I take pride in that because as the large lettering in our station reads, “Do Your Job, It Is a Privilege to Work Here.” When others are asking us how we can run all those calls after midnight, we smile and keep on rolling. We want to run calls and improve, not sleep. We can sleep when the big man upstairs calls our name. Right now, we’re perfecting our craft. Will individuals who are hired to fill a quota feel this way? I think not.

If you’re a chief-level officer in charge of increasing your diversity, please remember that our lives are in the hands of other firefighters in the streets. Think back to when you rode a rig and you knew someone on your crew couldn’t do their job. The rest of the crew had to pick up the slack for them. Why? To reach a quota? That’s pretty sad. We don’t work at the snack bar selling cookies and milk. We’re responsible for each other’s lives while operating in an ever-changing operational environment that requires mental toughness, extreme physical abilities and a high level of emotional stability.

Two examples

I’m going to give you a couple of examples to chew on. Recently the hiring requirements were modified to enhance the diversity of a fire department in the United States. The firefighters who work in that organization voiced their concerns regarding this change and even predicted some type of injury would occur. Well, low and behold, after “pushing” an individual through the recruit training to “check the box,” that individual was hurt in the firehouse, not even in the field. What do you think this individual would do on an emergency scene when someone needs their help? Do you really think they would save them? As a chief-level officer, would you want to go to someone’s family and tell them that their loved one perished on a fire scene because a member of their crew couldn’t perform the job, but increased the diversity of the organization? Again, I think not. Not a good message.

It’s time to face the facts. This is not a profession that everyone can do. If you’re not strong enough or smart enough to be a firefighter, find another profession. Do we hire lackluster brain surgeons, heart surgeons or Navy SEALs to “check a box”? NO. Why? Because if you can’t perform your job as a surgeon, someone dies. If you can’t ruck 20-plus miles, perform ocean swims and become a weapons expert, you’ll never be a Navy SEAL. This is a fact. While our profession is not apples to apples to the ones I just described, we still have a responsibility to provide our citizens and firefighters with personnel that can do the job. Think about it this way. When a citizen is trapped in a fire, fighting for their life, do you think that diversity is anywhere in their mind. No. They’re hoping that whoever is coming to save them is the smartest, strongest and most operationally sound firefighter. No less. Mediocrity gets people killed. Period.

Another example: A few years ago we had the first female go through our new recruit program in Charleston. Everyone was curious how she was going to do. Before it all started, she came to us and told us very passionately to not give her special treatment because she wanted to prove that she could do it ALL. And you know what, she did. She was mentally tougher, more physically capable and exemplified a higher level of emotional intelligence than many of the other members of that recruit academy. She ended up graduating in the top 5 percent of the class. She earned the nickname Cadillac because everything she did came easy. She is now in operations and rides the second-busiest engine in our department. She is one of our best.

Quality or quantity?

Now let me be very clear. I fully support organizational diversity and understand the important role it plays in our operational success. However, if someone cannot do their job, they need to go. Regardless of race, culture, religion, gender, etc. This has nothing to do with that. I don’t care what your gender, race, religion, culture, etc., are as long as you can do this job effectively.

So before you decide to hire someone based on a quota to fill, think about the firefighters, the ones in the street. Also, think about when you were on the line as a responder. Did you want to work with someone that just joined the fire service because there was a quota to fill OR did you want to work with an individual that joined this profession to be a tactical surgeon? I would venture to say the latter. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. This will lead to mediocrity, which will then lead to someone getting killed. Notice I said killed, not perish. In the real world, not everyone gets a trophy. And in the fire service, not everyone gets a job. The quicker we start realizing that, the easier this topic will be to discuss. An individual can either do the job or they can’t. There are no shades of gray. Therefore, I ask that we stop trying to create them, because when we do, we endanger our personnel. And eventually, we will go to a funeral because of this.

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