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Diversity in the fire service: The fear factor

It is not acceptable to use the excuse, "Well, we've always acted this way, so either get used to it or leave"


The subject of diversity in the fire service is one that brings up many feelings for people. One of them is fear. I hear it all the time: "I support diversity, but I'd rather not work as an officer with (fill in the blank) because I'm afraid that person might be offended by something that happens, and then I'd be in trouble."

Or this: "Whenever a new woman works with us, everyone's on edge, worried that she might feel harassed by the normal stuff that goes on in the station."

Some discomfort with those who are different is normal, but it is a company officer's job to make sure that all members of the department are included equally in any given crew.

It is also critical that departments do not allow crews to self-segregate into groups that are very similar among themselves.

Human nature
Most people would prefer to spend time with people who are more or less like themselves. It is just human nature to feel more comfortable in these types of groups.

However, there is also ample research that shows such homogenous groups generally do not make the best decisions over time, and are much more susceptible to decision making flaws such as groupthink.

Diversity, particularly diversity in thought process, is a key factor in seeing the big picture and making good decisions.

But diversity and differences can cause fear. This fear must be mitigated for real teams to form. Dealing with the fear people may have in working with those who are different is the responsibility of the department, but also individuals at the company officer level.

Leadership in this area starts at the top. All departments must have clear and reasonable policies related to diversity, harassment, and professional conduct.

It is not acceptable to use the excuse, "Well, we've always acted this way, so either get used to it or leave."

Lead by example
All department members must be trained on laws and policies that apply. Those in positions of power must lead by example.

But most diversity issues do not go as far as harassment, nor is there malicious intent in some of the misunderstandings that may occur.

More often, discomfort may result from not knowing why someone is doing or saying something, but being afraid to ask about it.

In some cases, members of the existing group may self-censor themselves to an extreme degree when dealing with those who are different, out of fear that anything they say or do might be offensive.

This can go to ridiculous lengths at times, and cause more harm than it prevents.

I remember when I was fairly new on the job there was one officer who would turn off the TV whenever I entered the room. He was afraid something might offend me and did not want to be responsible.

The result of this behavior was resentment from all the crew members toward me, and a real sense of isolation for me.

Have nothing to hide
How can you diminish the fear factor when it comes to diversity? First, make sure you have nothing to hide. The previously mentioned officer would turn off any TV program the crew happened to be watching, including the news or a sports event.

He had nothing to hide, but was fearful anyway. But there were times in those early years when crews did watch inappropriate things in the fire station. Controlling this kind of behavior is the company officer's job.

The best antidote to fear is understanding, and one way to better understand someone is simply to ask. People are almost never offended by respectful inquiry.

When such inquiry is done in the spirit of genuinely wanting to get to know someone better, the response will usually be positive.

Responsible to all
Officers must always remember that they are responsible to all members of their crew equally. Officers should make it clear to everyone that if any individual ever has a problem with something that is happening in the station, that person is encouraged to come privately to the officer to discuss the situation.

Telling your crew that you will listen respectfully to their concerns and take them seriously is not the same as promising to agree or act on their concerns.

However, guaranteeing a private and respectful audience will go a long way toward making everyone feel more comfortable in the station.

Fear is a natural reaction to the unknown. However, when decisions are made based on fear, it is almost certain they will not be optimal.

It is an officer's responsibility to equally include everyone on the crew, and get the best from everyone on every shift. Working to eliminate fear is a critical first step in making your crews the best they can be.

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