Leaderboard: November 2015

Research the impact of diversity in fire
November 16, 2015
Written by Doug Tennant
A leader knows that it’s the people – the firefighters in all branches of a department – who make a fire service creative, adaptable and responsive in saving lives, preventing injuries and reducing property damage. Three lines of defence – public education, prevention and emergency response – against the ravages of fire are the raison d’etre for any fire service.
Those defences are effective solely due to the interaction of firefighters, usually working as a team, with the public. A fire service cannot stand still, relying on the adage that we are successful because we are the fire service and everyone loves us. Firefighters must remain diligent and constantly strive to find creative and innovative ways to reduce injuries and death due to fire. The only safe fire is the one that does not start in the first place.  

Recent headlines show that more and more municipalities of all sizes are reducing the number of firefighters in an effort to address gaps in budgetary funding while maintaining an effective emergency response. While this measure may be an obvious short-term method to cut costs, what about the long-term effectiveness of your department? What about new ways to educate and prevent fires before they happen? How is education and prevention to be funded and who is responsible for creating and implementing programs? The fire service must establish or enhance a culture of creativity to find new ways and means to address the continuing risk of fire in our communities. How can we be adaptive to the public’s demand for fiscal accountability and also be creative in reducing – heck I will say it – eliminating fires caused by human behaviour?  

In a recent Irish Times article, Gareth Jones, a human-resources consultant and researcher, states that, “Creativity increases with diversity and declines with sameness. You need to code diversity into your DNA. You need not only to recruit for diversity, you need to embrace it.”

Fire-service leaders need to be aware of the growing discontent by the public and politicians who focus solely on the fiscal bottom line. Leaders need to be actively teasing out more creative, adaptive ideas and logistical means from their firefighters to continue to reduce the impact of fires in our communities. To do that I believe fire service leaders need to focus more than ever on who they recruit into their departments.

As Jones suggests, the fire service needs to embrace diversity in the membership and move away from sameness. The stereotypical white male firefighter could be seen to limit, if not inhibit creativeness within a fire service. It would seem that diversity in recruitment, once again, could provide an immense opportunity for the fire service to not only be seen doing the right thing by reflecting the communities they serve, but also becoming more creative and successful using the three lines of defence in the fight against fire and other emergencies.  

Enhancing diversity within the fire service means not only recruiting visible minorities (what does that really mean?), but also hiring from the perspective of ageism, physical and mental/cognitive abilities, and of course (you knew it was coming) gender.

Addressing the disparity of gender in the fire service is a pressing issue for chief officers who are determined to increase creativity within their departments. Recruitment must not only focus on the traditional binary concept of gender (stereotypically based upon sex) but also means hiring firefighters who are transgendered, gender-neutral, two spirited, and so on. Indeed, there are many, many forms of gender. The concept of gender in society and obviously in the fire station can be a complicated, but not insurmountable issue.

Fire-service leaders should become more aware of gender diversity, research how it or the lack of it impacts the fire service, and ultimately come to appreciate how acting on that knowledge could enhance the creativity and responsiveness of departments.

The resources are out there for information linking diversity and the fire service. Not too long ago I attended a workshop that was designed to promote and increase awareness of the benefits of diversity (gender and visible minorities) in the Canadian fire service. There are lots of local, provincial and national groups and organizations in which chief officers can participate to get more information about the positive benefits of diversity.

The gender of the person behind the mask, the fire-code inspection report or leading a public-education session on smoke alarms does not matter. What matters is doing everything you can to be more creative in improving public safety within your community.


Doug Tennant is the retired fire chief in Deep River, Ont. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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