Leading Edge: Fire service must embrace diversity
By Don Jolley
By Don Jolley
The Canadian demographic landscape is extremely diverse, with many languages, cultures, beliefs and values. Yet overwhelmingly, both career and volunteer firefighters are generally white males. As fire service leaders, we need to work much harder to alter this prototype.
In the past 10 years, there have been many examples where the lack of cultural and gender diversity and acceptance has resulted in negative headlines for the fire service. Stories, and even convictions, related to harassment, bullying, sexual misconduct and unfair hiring and promotional practices abound.
We have all seen them, maybe even been part of one. Some departments are moving forward positively, but why are the vast majority struggling to recruit and retain a diverse personnel base?
Colin Powell, the highly respected American general, once observed of interviewers that they, “think they’re being progressive by not mentioning in their stories that I’m black. I tell them, ‘Don’t stop now. If I shot somebody you’d mention it.’” This environment exists within our country and profession as well.
There have been many articles written, describing the lack of active, culturally diverse recruiting practices and the creation of gender-neutral fire hall environments. There has even been a strong push over the past couple of years regarding acceptance of LGBTQQIP2SAA brothers and sisters.
As writer of the Leading Edge column, I consider myself progressive. Yet, I didn’t know what this acronym stood for. That is embarrassing. Did you?
By the way, it stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, queer, intersex, pansexual, two-spirit (2S), androgynous, and asexual.
As chiefs, we are not well-informed as a whole, and I dare say that most of us don’t want to be. That needs to change – quickly and comprehensively.
A big factor not often recognized is that there is a stigma surrounding the fire service within segments of our communities that we are not breaking down.
We must stop trying to force potential applicants into our traditional “box.” Rather, we must allow them to transform the fire service to fit the modern cultural and political landscape that is now our country.
Sarah Kaplan, a distinguished professor at the Rotman School of Management, notes that organizations of all types need to “pay attention to the ways that current systems, policies and practices unintentionally create tailwinds for some (white, straight males) and headwinds for others (underrepresented groups),” and to, “look at how bias is embedded in practices and come up with innovative solutions to change those practices.”
This is prevalent everywhere, and especially in the fire service.
Fire service recruiting and evaluation is a problem. Often, departments use testing and hiring practices that are targeted toward historical and specific stereotypes such as size, strength and endurance. That needs to stop. We must recognize the many modern expectations of the fire service, with actual firefighting being a rare occurrence. EMS, prevention, education, confined space, technical rescue and leadership can all use, or even demand, different attributes than the traditional stereotypes.
EMS is a huge part of the modern fire service. The overwhelming majority of female patients, especially from foreign cultures, prefer a female first responder attending to them, especially if there’s physical contact. In some cultures, such as with the Sikh religion, it is unacceptable for a non-family male to have physical contact with a female without permission.
The list of new realities is long, yet we often do not target recruiting for them.
The fire service needs to quickly follow the police and EMS example for recruiting and recognize that a diversity of skillsets on a crew is much more valuable than four of the same. The fear of culture change is exactly why we are being forced there. Society now demands the change with the #MeToo movement being the latest example.
As a leader, you must quickly and systematically remove gender and culture bias from every aspect of your operation and reject the lingering excuse of the need for “fit.” It is an excuse for poor leadership. Make the job appealing to all. Make it attainable to all. Embrace difference for the innovative potential it offers and be proud when it does.
Don Jolley is the fire chief for the City of Pitt Meadows, B.C., and the first vice-president of the Fire Chiefs’ Association of British Columbia. Contact Don at firstname.lastname@example.org.