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Is your fire agency ready to make DEI a priority?

Prioritizing DEI starts with mission alignment and leadership support

Diverse group of fire fighters at the station talking

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By Julian Velarde

The Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) in California serves 23 cities in the county, with nearly 2 million residents, and growing Asian, Hispanic and mixed heritage populations. As is the case in countless communities across the country, a culturally diverse workforce empowers our fire department members to forge relationships with our ever-changing communities, particularly when we can speak their languages, and understand their cultural practices, traditions and belief systems.

A strong connection with the community doesn’t form in a vacuum, though. It requires an intentional focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

Mission alignment

Prioritizing DEI starts with tying your DEI efforts to your agency’s mission. For example, at the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) in California, our mission is to “proudly serve the changing needs of our communities by providing exceptional emergency and support services. We pledge a commitment to preserving the quality of life.” The changing needs of Orange County go far beyond the identity considerations of race/ethnicity and gender. They require a broader engagement of DEI efforts in understanding how our communities are impacted by a variety of issues, including access to healthcare, affordable education, mental health, housing insecurity, and a growing elderly population. In serving the changing needs of our communities, the OCFA recognizes the need to have a diversity of staff knowledge, identities, skills, talents and life experiences to solve some of our most complex organizational and community challenges. Additionally, as Tim Elmore states in “A New Kind of Diversity: Making the Different Generations on Your Team a Competitive Advantage” (2022), we need leaders who are skilled in getting the most out of today’s multi-generational workforce, maximizing their strengths and abilities in solving our most pressing matters.

The following are key indicators for your agency’s DEI readiness.

Leadership support

As we consider how to best connect with our communities, bear in mind that prioritizing DEI efforts doesn’t mean you need agreement on every issue or from everyone in the organization. But you will need support – and support at the highest levels of the organization. Without the support from your fire chief, governing body and executive team, these efforts are destined to fail. Additionally, garnering support from leadership helps ensure that resources are in place for DEI efforts to flourish at all levels of the organization.

At the OCFA, Fire Chief Brian Fennessy set the tone from the moment he took the leadership reins of the organization in 2018. He, along with Deputy Fire Chief Lori Zeller and Assistant Chief/Director of Human Resources Stephanie Holloman, supported the creation of a full-time diversity and inclusion coordinator position to provide strategic leadership in the areas of DEI. Additionally, in the Fire Chief Leader’s Intent on Diversity all-staff announcement sent to all OCFA staff shortly after stepping into his role as chief, Fennessy emphasized the following elements as his top priorities:

  • Promoting cultural and ethnic diversity as a strength
  • Increasing the number of female firefighters within the OCFA

Chief Fennessy further stated: “Diversity is about leveraging different thoughts and ideas, different skill sets, and different approaches toward solving our problems. Diversity is what makes a team strong, it allows one person’s weaknesses to be offset by another’s strengths … diversity will benefit the OCFA by helping us to more easily fulfill our mission in serving our communities.”

Many of our firefighters who speak languages other than English, like Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean, have expressed how vital these linguistic skills have been in connecting them to and serving the health and wellness needs of Orange County residents.

Additionally, in OCFA’s outreach and recruitment efforts, we have expanded our coverage area to reach more women and other historically underrepresented groups both in and out of the county. Programs such as our Girls Empowerment Camp (GEC), Cadet, Internship and Apprenticeship programs seek to mentor and support the next generation of young people in their pursuit of careers in and in support of the fire service.

DEI allies

Implementing a DEI focus for your agency can be a daunting task in today’s social and political climate. To make your efforts less challenging from the start, it is critical to identify your allies in the work, particularly in the leadership ranks. Having a group of leaders in your organization who understand the inherent value of a DEI focus allows others to bear the responsibility of ensuring your agency’s DEI efforts don’t lose momentum.

At the OCFA, battalion chiefs, division chiefs and assistant chiefs have been equal partners in messaging the relevance of DEI at our fire captain and battalion chief academies, working alongside the diversity and inclusion coordinator to connect DEI concepts and best practices to the day-to-day responsibilities of fire captains and battalion chiefs. This type of collaboration plays a critical role in demonstrating buy-in from the highest levels of leadership.

Anonymous DEI climate survey

An important next step in determining your agency’s DEI focus is to conduct an anonymous DEI climate survey to gauge the experiences of your staff around DEI issues. Having a third-party survey vendor conduct the survey and provide the analysis is crucial to avoid any perceptions that the results are being manipulated by the organization.

The survey can provide your agency with both quantifiable and qualitative analyses that can be used to develop initiatives and programs that meet the needs of staff. It also provides direction in developing short- and long-term DEI goals for your agency.

Once the vendor has provided their analysis and recommendations for the next steps for your organization, provide all staff with access to the survey report. This adds transparency to the process as well as a level of vulnerability to help gain the trust from members regarding the credibility of management’s intentions.

Final thoughts

Establishing DEI as a priority for your organization is a fundamental first step in your agency’s efforts to create a more welcoming, fair and thriving workplace for all staff. The work is not a short-term fix for improving workplace conditions and staff experiences. DEI concepts, definitions and practices will evolve in response to the changing needs of your employees and the communities you serve. Agencies that are flexible and adaptable to these changes will reap the greatest success in the work of DEI.

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About the author
Julian Velarde has been a practitioner of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work for over 20 years in both public and private academic institutions, including the University of California - Santa Cruz, U.C. Davis, U.C. Riverside, Soka University of America and the Laguna College of Art + Design, where he was the assistant dean of students. Velarde joined the Orange County Fire Authority as the agency’s diversity and inclusion coordinator in May 2021, leading DEI initiatives and trainings across the organization and developing strategic partnerships with OCFA’s member cities. Velarde received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from U.C. Santa Cruz and his master’s degree in education with an emphasis in higher education administration from the Claremont Graduate University.