Posted on December 19, 2018

Making U.S. Fire Departments More Diverse and Inclusive

Corinne Bendersky, Harvard Business Review, December 7, 2018

{snip} 96% of U.S. career firefighters are men, and 82% are white. This homogeneity is striking, especially when you compare it to the U.S. military, which is 85% men and 60% white, and local police forces, which are 88% men and 73% white.

Many fire departments recognize that their lack of diversity as a problem and say they’re committed to increasing racial and gender diversity. “We have to diversify, because it actually improves our organization. It helps us address the needs of the public better,” says Derek Alkonis, the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) assistant chief. Ralph Terrazas, chief of the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD), agrees: “[We] will provide a higher level of service to the communities we serve when the people of that department respect the culture, language and beliefs of the people within that community.”

But what’s the actual path for departments achieving more diversity? And if they do so, will their members embrace how it improves their organization?


What firefighters actually do.

{snip} In 2016, only 4% of emergency calls to which U.S. fire departments responded were actually fires. The majority (64%) were medical emergencies.

To succeed as a firefighter, stereotypically masculine traits like brawn and courage are simply not enough. Firefighters also need the intellectual, social, and emotional skills required to deliver medical emergency aid, support each other through traumatic experiences, and engage intimately with the communities they serve. In short, successful firefighters embody a complex mix of skills and traits. And yet, in my research on reducing gender bias and my work conducting training on general diversity and inclusion with fire departments, I find that, when evaluating fit and competence, firefighters tend to default to a reductive set of traits (physical strength evaluated through strict fitness tests, for example) that serve to maintain white men’s dominance in the fire service.

This manifests itself in several ways. A common sentiment I’ve heard many times is, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, female, male, or polka-dot. All I care about is if you can do the job.” But if this performance-based meritocracy were true, getting the job done would encompass a variety of skills and talents at which both men and women and people of all races and ethnicities could potentially excel. {snip}

We determined that this is because stereotypes about women’s relative lack of physical strength and stamina have led to a widespread belief that departments have lowered their standards to accommodate female firefighters, thus undermining the integrity of the service and posing a threat to their colleagues and communities.


Black firefighters also have to compensate for stereotyped assumptions of inferior competence. Historically, this was especially true during departments’ legally mandated affirmative action hiring periods. “When I was hired,” said Brent Burton, LACoFD Captain, Recruitment Unit and former president of the Stentorians (the recognized employee group for black firefighters), “people essentially told me ‘you’re an affirmative action guy, you’re not as good.’” Today, greater representation has reduced some of that performance skepticism, but black firefighters still face challenges with social exclusion and explicit racism.


What’s being done to increase diversity?

Many departments and industry groups are proactively trying to diversify and to change their culture to be more inclusive, particularly with respect to recruitment and promotion processes. In the mid-1990s, for example, the Stentorians created a promotion preparation program for its members to offset the insufficient mentoring black firefighters received in the field. “This is one reason why there is relatively equal representation of blacks throughout ranks of the LAFD” compared to the population of Los Angeles County, says LAFD Assistant Chief and former Stentorians’ president Kwame Cooper.


Throughout California, the departments that have most effectively leveraged these kinds of outreach efforts “integrate recruitment and mentoring of women and people of color into subsequent stages of the hiring process,” explains Dave Gillotte, LACoFD Captain and President of the Firefighters IAFF Local 1014. That means, for example, targeting qualified candidates from underrepresented groups to advance through the selection process. This differs from the more traditional method of relying on a random lottery from the general candidate pool, a place where women and people of color are underrepresented and thus have lower odds of being selected.


The problem is that none of these programs directly address the challenge of inclusion — that is, of being valued and having a sense of belonging, regardless of who you are. So how can we get more firefighters to recognize members of non-prototypical groups as being equally capable of success in the fire service?

Reframing the firefighter prototype


I also encourage leaders to elevate the value of skills that align with stereotypes about women and minorities through concrete actions. For example, to promote the social and emotional strengths commonly associated with women, one might look for ways to acknowledge and celebrate crew members who demonstrate what we call the “heart and soul” of a firefighter in the station and out in the field. Joviality — defined as “markedly good humor” and one that helps process emotional trauma — is a positive trait associated with black Americans somewhat more than with white Americans, so explaining that a jovial culture can increase crew effectiveness may reduce some of the skepticism about and exclusion of black firefighters. {snip}


Most firefighters are probably unaware of how their status-quo perceptions about their profession reinforce bias and create unequal opportunities for peers from underrepresented groups. My research points to a more inclusive alternative. {snip}