By Mary Morten, Geneva Porter, and Sarah Menke

Mary Morten, Geneva Porter, and Sarah Menke identify the building blocks for a fire department’s path to diversity, racial equity, and inclusion–and stress that path isn’t a short one.

June 21 Diversity And Inclusivity Feat Pic 1Over the past year, amid the backdrop of an unprecedented global pandemic, the nation witnessed a dramatic increase in the general population’s awareness of racial and social injustices.

Particularly after the murder of George Floyd, individuals and organizations across sectors that never considered the words “diversity,” “racial equity” and “inclusion” suddenly began to use this language.

After reading countless “diversity statements” or seeing “Black Lives Matter” signs posted in windows, the question becomes how do we move from trend to transformation? How does one firehouse, a fire department, an entire fire service work to center diversity, racial equity and inclusion (DREI) to increasingly address the needs of the population?

Defining DREI

According to research that was conducted by NFPA, there were an estimated 1,115,000 career and volunteer firefighters in the United States in 2018, which is the most recent year for which data are available. Eight percent of the firefighters were women. The percentage diminishes when looking specifically at career firefighters, where only 4 percent were women.

In regard to race, between 2014–2018, 82.5 percent of career firefighters identified as Caucasian (white) & Other; 8.4 percent identified as Black or African American; 8 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino; and 1.1 percent identified as Asian. These numbers indicate a clear need to diversify the fire service. That said, “a clear need to diversify” must not be the ultimate goal. The fire service in the United States must look beyond diversity and toward building a culture that’s both equitable and inclusive.

One of the first steps in building a diverse, racially equitable and inclusive culture is to provide a foundational understanding of terms and concepts.

Diversity includes all of the ways that people differ, and it encompasses all of the different characteristics that make one individual or group different from another. It is all-inclusive and recognizes everyone and every group as part of the diversity that should be valued. It involves different ideas, perspectives and values.

Racial equity is the condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares. Given that race remains one of the primary indicators of one’s success in the United States, achieving racial equity means that race no longer dictates one’s socioeconomic outcome. Furthermore, without racial equity, there will be no gender equity, LGBTQ equity or disability equity, to name a few systems of oppression that intersect with race and must be addressed for any lasting systemic change.

Inclusion is authentically bringing traditionally excluded individuals and/or groups into processes, activities and decision/­policy-making in a way that shares power.

Process and approach

Centering diversity, racial equity and inclusion is a continuous journey for the fire service. Along this journey, the questions that those firefighters and officers alike should ask include: How do we open ourselves to the work? How do we practice reflective listening that, by its very nature, is deep, personal and uncomfortable?

Our group’s approach to navigating this journey with client partners begins with facilitating assessments, developing customized training and partnering in the evolution of action planning development.

Assessment. A participatory action model is employed to collect assessment data, and an asset-based model is used to analyze the results of that data collection. Participatory action is the collection of the data through multifaceted engagement of a variety of stakeholders, all of whom are invested in the assessment process. For the fire service, this can include first responders as well as community-based organizations.

Assessment tools might include the development of qualitative and quantitative tools, such as surveys, interviews and focus groups as well as a review of written documents, including employee handbooks and human resources policies.

Asset-based refers to a method of analysis that emphasizes the strengths and assets of an organization first, with the assumption that the opposite of a strength, or asset, is a need, or challenge. This defines the path forward, not as a series of flaws in opposition to the “right” thing but rather as the normal issues that arise over the course of an organization’s lifetime.

Training. Insights, experiences and recommendations from the assessment are shared with the organizational leadership in the form of a written report. The sharing of the written report is followed by customized training. These customized trainings aren’t a “one and done” but a critical step in the organization’s DREI journey. This ensures that all are exposed to foundational concepts and definitions and are provided the opportunity to engage in deep listening.

Moving forward. Among the most critical next pieces is the development of an action plan. This necessary tool provides a guide and a means to monitor progress toward diversity, racial equity and inclusion and to manage change. It outlines specific DREI goals, strategies, the employee lead, the timeline and measurements for success.

Lessons learned

Along the road toward building diversity, racial equity and inclusion, don’t rule out that possible barriers might exist. For example:

Treating the work as linear and finite rather than iterative and ongoing. This work doesn’t have an endpoint; at the same time, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Expecting immediate results. It takes time for change to occur. Acknowledging that process and embracing the need for change can take years.

Expecting marginalized people to do all of the work. There must be buy-in and champions across all levels of an organization, without marginalized people expected to do all of the work.

Failing to demonstrate enthusiasm from the top of the organization. Leaders’ enthusiasm can be contagious throughout an organization, and it’s important that the words that are spoken match the actions that are taken.

Failing to integrate this work at every level, in every department and organizationwide. All parts of the organization must be on the DREI journey at the same time for true and lasting change to take place. As noted in the Harvard Business Review article, “Making U.S. Fire Departments More Diverse and Inclusive,” “When you hold all department members accountable to excellence along the full spectrum of traits associated with being a successful firefighter, you help firefighters that don’t fit the straight, white, male archetype and create more equal opportunities and inclusion.

Not addressing any one of these barriers can derail progress on building a DREI culture. The key is to recognize that the journey is one that can yield lasting, positive effects for all—the fire service and the communities that are served.

Vince Pagán

Vince Pagán has blogged 270 posts