Supporting a diverse fire service

At the turn of the 20th century, most U.S. fire departments included just one group of people: white Protestant (or, in some areas, Catholic) men from Northern European backgrounds. For decades, this profile changed very little. Eventually, and not without controversy, Italian-American men (and, later, men from Hispanic backgrounds) gained entry into firefighting jobs.

As early as the 1920's in some cities-- and much later in others-- a few African-American men became career firefighters. Not until many decades later did their right to do become protected by law, and only in the 1960's did black men become career firefighters in meaningful numbers. In the 70's and 80's, it was women's turn. By the 1990's, several thousand women were working as career firefighters in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The trend is clearly towards ever-greater inclusiveness in the fire service workforce, and the speed of change in the composition of the workforce is accelerating. It is therefore not surprising that some members of the dominant group (white male firefighters) should feel uneasy or sense a threat to their longstanding dominance of the workplace and its culture.

Women firefighters are the most recent and perhaps most dramatically different newcomer. Women firefighters represent change. Whether or not they as individuals mean to change anything at all, women are viewed by other firefighters as agents of change to the culture of the fire service. They also alter or threaten the ways male firefighters perceive the job, themselves, and women in general.

Newcomers and assimilation

How have fire departments dealt with the prospect of any new, previously excluded group seeking to become firefighters? The pattern is the same regardless of the group. The first response is usually to build a wall: to find reasons why X's (people belonging to the given group) "can't" be firefighters. Much energy is spent documenting and defending this position.

When enough X's do eventually become firefighters that this argument is weakened, the response shifts: "Okay; we'll hire X's, but we're not going to change anything for them. They'll just have to deal with the workplace as it is." The changes contemplated by this approach include things like restraining firefighters from racist behavior, taking steps against sexual harassment, and providing restroom privacy for female firefighters (and maintaining it for male firefighters). This philosophy is called assimilation. Many fire departments in the 1990's take this approach to women's presence. Women are allowed to be firefighters if they will blend into the scenery and not expect any "special treatment"-- a code phrase for change.

What happens in a workplace when assimilation-- the melting pot-- is the goal? People who are not part of the dominant group are expected to become as much like the dominant group as possible. A few X's will be able to do this; a few more will be able to do it in limited ways or for a short period of time. For the majority who can't conform in significant ways over the long haul, the results are stress, exclusion and isolation, role confusion, unhappiness, poor performance and poor evaluations. X's are usually left out of informal communications networks, and find paths to both informal and promoted leadership roles closed to them. (Informal group leaders in many fire crews wield more real power and influence than the officers.)

When assimilation is the goal, the underlying expectation is that everyone will have identical needs and be treated identically. Training on affirmative-action and equal-employment issues, instead of being seen as helping everyone adjust to workforce changes, is written off as "special treatment" for the X's. "They didn't have any classes like that for me when I came on," is a common protest.

Networking and support groups also run counter to this philosophy. The assimilation process encourages everyone to try to be like the dominant group; thus, X's are actively discouraged or intimidated from seeking support from other X's. When employees from outside the dominant group connect with others for mutual support, they find they have many issues in common. But identifying issues that exist for X's as a group violates the basic premises of assimilation: X's are not supposed to have issues separate from those of the dominant group. Distrust is often a factor as well: white men may see two or more X's getting together as a potential threat.

Women firefighters face two conflicting sets of constraints. In many ways, they are expected to fit in and become "one of the guys:" to be interested in the same things (hunting, fishing, cars), to share the same kinds of humor, to enjoy the same foods, to use the same station facilities comfortably, and to perform firefighting tasks using the same physical techniques as men. But in other ways, women are expected to conform to the dominant group's ideas of what women (ladies) should be: compliant, subservient, smiling, never angry; and above all, meeting men's standards of physical attractiveness. For women firefighters, these expectations overlap and conflict. A firefighter should be aggressive, but women shouldn't. Fire officers are praised for having a strong command presenceand giving orders in a direct and forceful way; ladies aren't. A lady isn't supposed to be around pornography, but women firefighters who seek to have pornography removed from the fire station are often ostracized.

White men set the standards for everyone in the fire service. That this might not be universally beneficial, or that other valuable standards might exist, was rarely considered until recently. But by the mid-1990's, some fire departments had taken a significant step away from the philosophy of assimilation and towards one of valuing diversity. This viewpoint recognizes that the monocultural values of the fire service are increasingly out of place in a diverse work setting. The fire service has changed its workforce without allowing the workplace to change in response. Assimilation uses the melting-pot analogy as its ideal: all people are thrown in, melted down and made the same. Valuing diversity, on the other hand, uses the mosaic: a picture whose beauty and functionality come from its thousands of tiny tiles of different shapes, sizes and colors.

Assimilation fails as a strategy for many reasons. It creates barriers for the newcomers, wastes talent and creativity that could have benefited everyone, and artificially reinforces the values of the dominant group by making it appear that they are held by everyone. When new employees who differ from the dominant group are not allowed to express their differences, only the most adaptable or invisible will stay on the job. The result is a high turnover of employees, and a loss of much of the value of having hired a diverse workforce. Members of the dominant group, for their part, believing their ways to be the only ways or the best ways, will feel threatened by even the small inroads made by members of other groups.

Valuing diversity works because it pays attention to what the work environment is like for everyone in it. It makes visible the informal workplace support systems the dominant group takes for granted, and recognizes that people who are excluded from these systems are in fact getting a negative form of "special treatment." Hiring a few women or other X's and dropping them to sink or swim in the white male culture of the fire station is not a way to manage change progressively. Positive leadership in workforce diversity means working to build a fire service culture where all employees can function productively together.

The benefits of valuing diversity go far beyond greater workplace harmony. A monocultural workforce often feels stagnant and inbred, with the same ideas and attitudes circulating over and over. That staleness is blown away by the fresh air of diversity. As one chief officer said, "Diversity is like getting a transfusion. Thank God for a new approach, something to chew on instead of Cream of Wheat every day!"

Public relations improve when a fire department or agency can show the communities it serves that it values diversity. This enhances the credibility and effectiveness of fire department outreach programs, from firefighter recruitment to community-group liaisons, fire safety education and arson-watch programs. When firefighters of all races and both sexes, on and off duty, speak well of the department and respectfully of each other, the fire department's public image is enhanced. Every time a piece of apparatus goes out the door or a member of the public visits a fire station, the fire department advertises its support for diversity. The department can then effectively market a diverse emergency service to its communities.

Leadership: "walking the talk"

Moving towards a workplace where cultural diversity is valued means challenging the comfort zones of people entrenched in the status quo. Those who promote change within an institution thus face strong reactions. The X's who represent change often become the convenient targets of that reaction. Fire service leaders must ensure that black firefighters, women firefighters, etc., do not shoulder the entire burden of fire service cultural transition.

Deliberate change in an organization happens from the top down. If a fire department or other fire agency is to move from the melting pot to the mosaic, its top management must take the initiative to change their own attitudes and behavior first in order to redesign policy and provide the education that will implement change throughout the organization.

For top management to be able to support diversity effectively, its members must understand and be able to identify the cultural differences that exist within the workforce. Managers should be aware of their own stereotypes and assumptions, and learn to listen to people positively, not discounting ideas they don't agree with or that come from someone with a different background. Managers should actively promote diversity education and see that all employees have access to information, people and other resources they need to do their jobs. A good manager of a diverse workforce will encourage constructive communication about differences instead of pretending everyone is alike, and will treat people in the workforce with fairness instead of with a cookie-cutter uniformity.

Valuing diversity must become a permanent part of the way the fire service does business. Institutionalizing changes will help make sure they survive a change of chief, future budget cuts, or a new political climate. A fire agency's written policies and procedures should reflect its commitment to diversity. For example, some agencies work against retaliation by having a system that automatically red-flags the name of anyone who files a complaint or grievance and is subsequently denied a promotion or special work assignment. The name goes directly to a city agency outside the fire department, such as EEO or the city council, to be reviewed without the individual having to file a complaint.

What is the future for a fire service leader who chooses not to implement these changes? An employer of a diverse workforce who does not deal positively with diversity will find his or her leadership weakened. A leader who "talks the talk" about valuing diversity but fails to support its implementation loses credibility and ensures the program's failure.

Weak leadership and a superficial commitment to diversity can mean reduced respect for the fire department in the community by city government. This in turn can translate into reduced financial and political support, affecting how much clout the chief or department has in other areas such as a fight against EMS privatization or to get a new fire station. The fire department's autonomy may also be threatened, inviting micro-management from its governing body over issues such as hiring or promotions.

Cultural diversity training

Cultural diversity training, or diversity awareness training, helps move the fire department away from a monocultural philosophy towards one that respects and supports cultural differences. It refers to personnel training that educates members of an organization about prejudices, stereotyping, and the positive aspects of workforce diversity.

The training can be focused in various ways, depending on the needs of the department. It is important for the fire chief or other agency head to be aware of these options, and of other types of helpful training that are available. Some programs, such as anti-racism or anti-homophobia training, focus specifically on issues of race or sexuality. Others provide education on sexual harassment and other gender-linked issues. Auxiliary training on conflict resolution, communications skills and mentoring will supplement diversity training. Some of these types of training should be done before diversity issues are addressed, in order for the diversity training to be more effective.

Just like training on firefighting skills, cultural diversity training is not a one-shot deal. It is an ongoing process of education and reinforcement a fire department undertakes to help the workforce be more effective, harmonious and productive. The fire chief should carefully assess the needs of the department in order to design a long-range training program that begins with intensive training for the management staff.

Several aspects of the fire service breed and reinforce prejudice on the part of its dominant group. These include:

  • The dominant group's unfamiliarity with other cultures;
  • The dominant group's perception of its ways as "right," and not as just one culture out of many;
  • The dominant group's perception that its dominance is threatened by the inclusion of others; and
  • A system of direct competition with co-workers for limited rewards such as promotions and training opportunities.
Other factors offer a foothold for developing acceptance and a pluralistic outlook. Many of the factors that strengthen the bonds among white male firefighters can extend to minority and women firefighters as well, such as:

  • A mutual purpose on the job;
  • Frequent contact with each other in the pursuit of common goals;
  • The sharing of intense experiences; and
  • Interdependence of crew members in critical situations.

Good cultural diversity training for the fire service identifies, discusses and limits the effect of forces, such as those in the first group, that encourage intolerance. It then identifies positive and cohesive forces, such as those listed in the second group, and enlists them to combat the destructive ones. For example, most firefighters know what it feels like to be picked on because they don't fit the norm. This experience can be explored to build solidarity and encourage firefighters to be aware of, and end, some of the behaviors that cause pain to others.

Diversity training leads to a view of the workforce as multicultural, rather than of the women and minority men as different. This relieves some of the pressure on X's to fit in at all costs, deny their identities and try to become just like everyone else. Learning to value diversity means discovering that no group's ways are "right" all the time or for everyone, and that one's own culture has value in the workplace equally with all others. It means understanding how one's own experiences influence and limit one's comfort level around people who are different from oneself. Most importantly, it lets employees gain an awareness of how they fit into the workforce mosaic.

Why do diversity training?

Miscommunication between men and women in the workplace has a strong cultural component. The more forcefully male culture expresses itself in a given fire department, the more difficult it will be for many women to find productive and happy careers there. Understanding differences between women and men as cultural differences lifts the burden off individuals; training on these issues gives all firefighters the tools to create a workplace that works for everyone. These tools help all employees through the stresses and transitions that accompany workforce change.

Lawsuits over on-the-job discrimination and sexual harassment can be expensive, with awards often in the $250,000 to $500,000 range. But the primary reason to do cultural diversity training is not to stay out of court. Fire chiefs provide cultural diversity training for themselves and their workforce because it's part of good management. Even if things never go as far as a lawsuit, discrimination and disharmony are costly in terms of factors that can not be assigned a dollar value: poor morale, loss of employees from groups the department has been working to recruit and retain, and a discredited reputation for the department within the community.

Cultural diversity training is not about "staying out of trouble." It is about managing change progressively, and taking full advantage of the wide range of resources that firefighters and officers bring to the job. Some of the benefits of workforce education in diversity issues are:

  • A more positive work environment.
  • Enhanced trust, respect, and unity of purpose within the workforce.
  • Improved productivity: employees can focus on the job at hand, not on protecting themselves against real or perceived threats. No one is left out of the system or forced to act like someone they're not.
  • Enhanced group problem-solving abilities, as a wider variety of ideas and viewpoints is supported.
  • Reduced stress, resulting in fewer injuries and reduced use of sick leave.
  • Greater understanding of and respect for different cultures, resulting in an improved level of service to the community.

Team-building. Training on communications and cultural diversity gives firefighters ways to talk about things they often feel they can't talk about. "I don't know how to ask her that without maybe offending her..." "It might be discrimination if I say that..." The knowledge that stems from diversity training creates a shared language in which to discuss problems. Better understanding improves communication, communication builds trust, and trust enhances teamwork.

Ending discrimination. Knowledge about cultural issues helps supervisors and co-workers intervene effectively when conflicts occur in the workplace. Improved communication across cultural barriers helps individuals work out misperceptions that might otherwise lead to a discrimination complaint, and helps stop inappropriate behavior before it becomes a major problem. Diversity training allows everyone to identify and work through their own stereotypes about others. It also lets everyone take pride in their own background, making it less likely anyone will feel compelled to put up with harassment and unfair behavior.

Evaluations. With an understanding of communications style differences, and of one's own stereotypes and preconceived notions, supervisors can evaluate all employees' performance more accurately. A recruit firefighter who is quiet and unassertive, or the one who asks lots of questions, isn't necessarily less competent than the one who is the first to do everything and never asks for clarification. A firefighter who doesn't look the way the officer has always thought firefighters should look may still be a good firefighter. Strengths and weaknesses can be more clearly assessed when the officer has an understanding of the firefighter's background and of his or her own expectations.

Workforce diversity. Continued success in recruiting, retaining and promoting employees from outside the dominant group is unlikely if the workplace does not value diversity. Conversely, in a workplace where differences are viewed as assets, people from a wider range of backgrounds are much more likely to feel comfortable, develop a sincere commitment to the job, express different viewpoints or new ideas, and excel.

Delivering the training

Some fire departments handle anti-harassment and cultural diversity training in-house. Because hiring outside professionals can be expensive, the temptation to "just have Captain Smith take everyone over the harassment policy" often wins out. But this is not diversity training. Managers should carefully consider the many disadvantages to such short-term cost-cutting. Most fire departments, ranger districts, municipalities and counties do not employ people with the expertise required to deliver effective cultural diversity training.

Trainers must be knowledgeable in cultural diversity issues, and must also have good counseling skills to handle verbal conflicts and situations charged with strong emotions. Trainers should either be skilled facilitators, or a separate facilitator should be involved in all sessions. Without these skills, the training often unleashes a free-for-all discussion of sensitive and controversial issues without being able to channel the energy positively or resolve the conflicts and accusations that arise. Minority-group members in such sessions often feel ignored, threatened, or criticized. White men tend to dominate the discussion yet still feel they're not being heard or their ideas are not being validated; they often feel collectively blamed for things they as individuals have never done. When the door is opened to people's deeper feelings, strict control and direction must be provided in order to keep the space safe. The training is seen as a license to talk about normally taboo subjects; ground rules for the discussion should allow everyone to raise their concerns but make it clear that "beating up" on any one person or group will not be permitted; trainers must be able to enforce those rules tactfully but effectively. If they can not, the resulting damage may be difficult to repair.

Inexperienced or unskilled trainers may simply read out loud the department's applicable policies, warn attendees of the penalties for violations, and ask if there are any questions. This is of limited value. Effective diversity training is participatory and interactive. Trainers must be able to develop and run realistic scenarios, role-playing and other exercises to involve participants in an active and challenging learning process.

Inexperienced trainers may also expect women and people of color in the group to become an instructional part of the training: to let their personal experiences represent all women, all African-Americans, etc., and to put themselves forward as examples for the benefit of the dominant group's education. The role of all participants as such must be respected by the trainers and by the group. To single anyone out by reason of difference violates the premise of multi-culturalism.

Trainers must be able to develop a high level of comfort and trust within the group being trained. Many people find it hard to speak openly about sensitive issues and to discuss workplace problems frankly when the trainer is one of their supervisors. In addition, as will be discussed later, if the training is held as a response to specific problems that have arisen within the department, an in-house trainer who is an officer of the department will be seen as an integral part of the system that allowed the problem to arise in the first place.

Having other municipal or county employees (such as from Personnel/Human Resources, Affirmative Action or EEO) deliver the training also has shortcomings. In many ways, they combine the disadvantages of outside and in-house trainers. The advantage of hiring outside trainers is that they are skilled professionals who know their material and how to deliver it; the weakness is that they may be perceived as outsiders who don't know "firehouse reality." The main asset of fire department personnel is that they do know firehouse reality; their weakness is that they are not usually skilled diversity trainers. Trainers from other city/county agencies will be viewed with skepticism for being outsiders and may also be perceived as lacking the necessary knowledge and skills. Depending on the past relationship between the fire department and the department providing the trainers, distrust could also be a factor.

If good cultural diversity training is a management priority, it will receive budgetary priority. Hiring a professional consulting firm to develop and deliver cultural diversity training costs money, but hiring trainers who have both expertise and experience makes it much more likely the resulting program will have a positive result. A cost-effective solution for larger cities would be to hire qualified diversity trainers as full-time employees to do ongoing training for all municipal departments on a rotating basis.

Trainers should be willing to incorporate members of the fire agency into the design and delivery of the program. The trainers should visit the fire stations and department headquarters to seek a wide range of personnel input before the content of the course is finalized. This helps them get a better understanding of fire station life, further demonstrates management's commitment to the program, and ensures the best possible fit between the department's needs and the program's content.

The program should be specifically tailored to the agency, reflecting its current level of acceptance of diversity and addressing employees' primary issues and concerns. Its schedule should accommodate firefighters' shifts, the geographic distribution of employees throughout the city or district, and the demands of emergency response. Crews from each station should get information about the diversity of people living and working in their response district as well as in the workforce, to help convert general concepts into useful information.

For members of fire departments that do not provide cultural diversity training, other sources are often available. State fire academies may provide or be willing to develop programs that can be brought to individual departments or offered on a regional basis. Universities with governmental affairs departments will sometimes work with fire service agencies to develop and deliver programs. Many fire service conferences now offer workshops and speakers on cultural diversity issues and resources, as do some state agencies.

While all personnel must receive the training, education and the commitment to change start at the top. This means the agency heads will go through an intensive training program before the firefighters' training begins. All of the department's officers should receive specially designed training that addresses their needs and roles as supervisors. Officers and chiefs should also be present at each training session for firefighters, not to supervise or to control behavior, but to listen and learn, and to demonstrate by their presence management's commitment to the program. In order to make a free discussion possible, part of the training may also involve peer-group sessions, where officers are not part of the firefighters' groups.

Training should be held on a regular basis, following an overall plan. Later sessions should build on earlier training to improve understanding and communications. The trainers should have an evaluation process to gather feedback, and make changes to the training based on this information. Training on cultural diversity issues should also be included in the recruit curriculum or other basic firefighter training, and in all officer development courses run by the department.

Pitfalls to avoid in diversity training

  • Avoid trainers whose styles are not effective with your organization. Examples:
    • Trainers who use an "in-your-face" approach to anti-racism or similar work (i.e., "You're racist, you're homophobic, and you'd better deal with it!") Fire department personnel tend to react negatively to the training rather than taking it as an encouragement to work on their prejudices.
    • Trainers who follow a "laundry list" or "cookbook" approach to diversity (i.e., "1. Don't pat Asians on the head, 2. Don't call African-American men "boy," etc.) This approach feels like "real information," but tends to substitute the memorization of sets of rules for the development of understanding and the ability to work issues out for oneself.
  • Make sure the trainers you use have the necessary range of knowledge and will deliver the material you want. Some consultants in workforce diversity deal primarily with ethnic issues. Your trainers should be fully familiar with gender issues in male-dominated workplaces and have included those issues as an integral part of their curriculum, not simply tacked on some information about sexual harassment.
  • Don't do the right training at the wrong time. Examples:
    • Tackling anti-racism work before more basic skills are in place. Fire department personnel should be trained in interpersonal communications and conflict resolution before cultural diversity training is addressed.
    • Holding the training in response to a specific problem that has arisen within the department. When the atmosphere has become polarized and hostile around specific issues, it will be more difficult to do productive training. Management should deal first with the problem, and only have training on the underlying cause or enabling conditions once the initial situation is resolved.
    • Holding training in direct response to the hiring of the first X. This puts that person entirely on the spot, and makes any negative aspects of the training their fault: "We have to sit through this (or spend money on this) because of you."
  • Avoid putting too many attendees in a session to cut costs. Group size should be limited to 20-25 attendees. Larger group sessions tend to become lectures and do not provide time for each person to speak at any length.
  • Don't have unrealistic expectations about what the training can accomplish. Diversity training is a valuable tool, but it is not a magic wand. Not all harassment will stop, nor will all interpersonal problems dissolve, simply because the training has been held.

Other sources of support

Fire departments, state and federal wildland fire agencies, municipalities, counties, states, firefighters' union locals and other fire service groups across the country have developed methods of providing ongoing support to women and people of color on the job.

Mentoring programs. These match up an incumbent firefighter with a newer firefighter, usually a new recruit. The mentor provides personal contact, information on unofficial "rules" and behavior standards within the organization, the benefit of the mentor's experience as guidance for the younger firefighter, and if need be, a sympathetic voice or a shoulder to cry on. Programs are voluntary and, though facilitated by management, operate at the individual level to provide crucial support for the firefighter early in her/his career or volunteer service.

Workforce diversity committees, women's issues committees, human relations committees. These committees or task forces can operate within a fire department or union local, as a joint labor-management effort, or on a city-wide or county-wide basis. Their function is to provide information to management and/or union leadership regarding the concerns of women and minorities on the job.

Local networks and national organizations. Women firefighters have created local support networks in many parts of the country. These range from informal groups that give a few women the opportunity to share problems and solutions over breakfast once a month, or more established organizations that hold regular meetings, put out a newsletter, and offer workshops and speakers on topics of interest. Their networking, support, and problem-solving functions can be critical to women's performance and longevity on the job. One local network of African-American women firefighters, for example, has developed a program that helps women prepare for fire department jobs, from strength training on through the application and interview process. Fire departments should be involved with national organizations and support their members-- of all races and both genders-- who want to participate in events of those groups.

This article is adapted from material developed by WFS under contract to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's U.S. Fire Administration, and published by FEMA/USFA as Many Faces, One Purpose: A Manager's Handbook on Women in Firefighting. It may be accessed free of charge from our site: Info Packets.

Also see related articles Report on Equality in the U.K. Fire Service and Minneapolis Walks the Walk.




© 2006 Women in the Fire Service, Inc.

Site design by Duckhouse Designs, LLC

Online store powered by osCommerce