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Retooling the fire service hiring process to achieve diversity among the ranks

The key to change may be the unique combination of recruitment practices, a validated placement exam, and a process of random selection


In this Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015 photo, emergency medical technician Janice Gardner, left, talks to Kenneth Worrell, left, 16, and Steven Vargas, 23, while working the recruitment table during a FDNY block party in the Harlem neighborhood of New York.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Diversity in the U.S. workplace is a topic that continues to receive a lot of attention. Almost weekly there is a story circulating focusing on diversity, or a lack of it, among employers. Whether it is a discussion about disparate hiring practices or the appearance of a glass ceiling when it comes to advancement within a company, diversity clearly impacts workplace culture, morale and job performance.

Even among our nation’s fire departments, achieving a workforce that accurately represents the community served is proving to be a challenge. In 2018, there were over 1.1 million career and volunteer firefighters nationwide. With a 6% growth from 2017 to 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that 50% of firefighters are between the ages of 30 and 49 years, 4.7% of career firefighters are female, 8.4% of career firefighters are African American, 1.1% of career firefighters are Asian, and 8.0% career firefighters are Hispanic or Latino.

It is not surprising that senior staff members must regularly face challenging questions from employees, community leaders and government officials regarding a workforce that does not reflect the community they serve. Overcoming this dilemma is possible but requires a deep review of the department’s hiring process and selection criteria as it compares to their mission, vision and culture.

Why diversify?

Varying cultural differences can lend new perspectives to problem-solving, improve employee morale, and lead to better relationships with the community. However, it is important that workplace diversity not be viewed as a “trend,” a lowering of departmental standards or a method to satisfy a sociopolitical agenda. Instead, emphasis should be placed on the value diversity and inclusion brings to the overall cultural well-being of the organization. This is especially true when working to attract top talent.

A successful diversity initiative requires a review of your entire hiring process, to include having support at all levels within the department and community, a focus on educating people about the value of a diverse organization, and a review of the current employee selection process.

Garnering support

The likelihood of a successful diversity plan rollout increases as support is garnered from all levels within the department. To gain this support, it is important to have crucial, sometimes awkward, conversations so that employees and citizens know that the situation is real, recognized and is being addressed. Promoting such discussions provides an outlet for people to voice their opinions and instills a sense of ownership regarding overcoming the challenge. Key community leaders with intimate knowledge of diversity struggles should be invited to take part in these discussions to help bridge gaps in cultural misunderstandings and broaden perspectives. This provides a more holistic view of the impact on the department and the community.

As these conversations occur, it is important to establish early in the process that mutual respect be the cornerstone, department policies be upheld, and no one can be forced to participate in a discussion. The goal of the discussion should be to gain knowledge with the intent of removing barriers that do not permit inclusion.

Educating top talent

Recruitment is an important method to broaden your department’s talent pool. Having full-time dedicated fire department recruiters is ideal, but not always viable due to budgetary and resource limitations. This does not mean that your department cannot use a focused recruiting effort to educate potential applicants on the benefits of the fire service. Recruiting gives you a prime opportunity to showcase your department and discuss what it means to be part of your organization’s family. Unfortunately, many fire departments fall short in having a well-managed strategic recruiting program that adequately markets their department.

The first step is to realize that your department’s best recruiters are already on staff. Any time your firefighters are interacting with the public, they have a prime opportunity to be the best representatives for attracting top talent. Just like professional athletes become role models who promote various products or services, your department can use key internal members to educate, identify and attract the next group of fire recruits. However, a successful recruiting effort must be strategic in thought and deliberate in action.

Taking a generalized approach to recruitment may increase your number of applicants, but it may not serve the purpose of diversifying your applicant pool. Being strategic and deliberate in your recruiting efforts first requires a proactive analysis of the department’s current and future needs. This includes defining the relevant skills and experience necessary for the job, crafting a clear plan that outlines who is the ideal candidate for your department, identifying who your internal and external stakeholders will be and who will help you implement your recruiting initiative, and determining where you will target to deliver your recruiting message. Using well-trained, enthusiastic members of your organization who understand the value that focused recruiting can bring to your diversity initiative increases the likelihood of achieving your goal of getting a large and diverse talent pool.

Take seriously the process of selecting the people who will be your department’s recruiters. It is important to choose members who can interact well and build strong relationships with groups. Even though professional sports teams have myriad talented members, not everyone is chosen to be a spokesperson – and for good reason. Some people are not comfortable interacting with strangers, others may not be completely on board with the department’s vision and mission, while some individuals may be better utilized in other aspects of your diversity initiative. For this reason, fire service leaders must put great thought into the interest level, knowledge, skills, abilities and personality of the members selected for this role.

Everyone involved must understand that the plan to diversify the organization does not mean that the department must compromise their standards, mission, and vision. In fact, evidence supports that having a heterogeneous team of coworkers can lead to varied perspectives, innovative solutions, reducing stereotypes, attracting new talent and boosting employee morale.

Academic aptitude testing

A successful recruitment drive may bring the diverse set of applicants you desire, but that does not mean you will have a diverse group of candidates who get hired. Recruiting is only one part of a multifaceted approach to your diversity initiative.

Though many fire department leaders recognize the need for a heterogeneous workforce, they often struggle with ways to select eligible candidates from the applicant pool while still operating within legal and ethical boundaries.

As with most career fire department hiring practices, candidates will have to undergo a multistep process to determine eligibility for hire. It is not uncommon for candidates to go through all or part of the following:

  • Complete an application
  • Take a written aptitude test
  • Complete a physical abilities test relating to firefighting tasks
  • Go through a background investigation
  • Participate in a psychological evaluation and health screening exam performed by a medical doctor
  • Take part in an interview with fire department members and/or human resources

In the quest to be fair and equitable, most departments use a top-down approach based on the written aptitude test and/or physical abilities test scores to determine which candidates proceed through the remainder of the hiring process. However, evidence shows that the results of top-down candidate ranking based on written aptitude and physical agility tests to measure job-related academic and physical abilities can have a disparate impact on certain minority groups.

Random selection

Minimizing disparate impact on minority groups is critical when testing to measure job-related knowledge, skills and abilities. The challenge becomes how to have a hiring process that measures academic and physical aptitude based on a set of required standards while still presenting opportunity to those who may fall prey to socioeconomic or educational disadvantages. The answer may be to introduce a validated academic placement exam combined with the statistical method of random sampling, or random selection, to your department’s hiring process.

Most career fire departments rely on a written exam to gauge the academic aptitude of its applicants. This is necessary to ensure their applicants have a certain level of cognitive ability prior to entering the recruit academy. Ideally, the test used has been validated by a third-party professional agency against bias, reducing the chances for claims of discrimination during the hiring process. But do these tests truly determine who will be the best firefighter? Will the candidate who scores a 90% be any more successful as a career firefighter than the candidate who scores an 80%? This is an important question to answer when taking into consideration those fire departments that send their recruits through both ProBoard fire certification training and National Registry Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) classes as part of their recruit academy curriculum.

With the amount of time and money invested in each fire recruit, it is important for fire departments to make sure those who are selected will be successful in their program. However, with a seemingly higher occurrence of discrimination lawsuits in the news, there is a distinct need to find new successful methods for obtaining diversity while ensuring departmental professional standards are maintained.

One method for achieving this goal is to use an academic course placement exam (i.e., CollegeBoard ACCUPLACER) combined with the statistical method of random selection applied to a group of eligible candidates who meet the minimum test score requirements (population).

The benefit of using a college course placement exam with cut-off scores associated with the difficulty level of the recruit school curriculum is that the minimum eligibility score for the exam (i.e., reading, writing and arithmetic) provides a baseline for academic success. Determining the placement exam minimum eligibility score can be achieved by reaching out to those colleges that have related fire science and EMS programs that use the course placement exam to determine student course eligibility. Those applicants who meet the minimum score requirements are displaying an academic aptitude level necessary for successfully navigating the academic standards of your department’s recruit school. As a pass/fail level of measuring eligibility, the results can be combined with other hiring process results, such as the physical agility test results, to create a group (population) that will be used for the random selection (sample) process.

With fire services nationwide having hundreds of candidates applying for a handful of open positions, the opportunity to enter the fire service becomes bleak for those applicants who still pass the written entrance test but score below the level of being selected. Evidence linking lower socioeconomic levels to reduced educational opportunities for certain minority groups typically results in entry-level test scores that fall too low to be considered for advancement in the hiring process when using top-down test score ranking.

Fortunately, random selection provides a way of selecting eligible candidates using statistical probability applied to all qualified test scores. The demographic distribution of the list of chosen eligible candidates (sample) would be proportional to the diversity composition of the primary candidate eligibility pool (population). The result is a proportionally diverse list of eligible candidates who may more accurately represent the demographics of the community served.

Final thoughts

It is difficult to argue against the value of having a diverse workforce. Our differences offer a varied array of perspectives to problem solving, innovation and leadership, which is beneficial to employee retention and creates a culture of inclusion. Unfortunately, many public safety agencies still find it challenging to adequately diversify their departments using a traditional top-down ranking of entrance test scores.

Though a well-developed and well-executed recruitment program can help educate people about your department, when used with a validated academic placement exam combined with the statistical method of random selection, your department will be better equipped to overcome its diversity challenges. Keep in mind, the use of these methods is not meant to be a fast-track to employment. Eligible individuals must still meet all the agency’s established qualifications for employment.

A perfect solution to overcoming all diversity challenges may not exist, but these steps may provide better employment opportunities to underrepresented groups that are historically overlooked using traditional hiring practices.


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Evarts, B., & Stein, G. P. (2020, February). U.S. Fire Department Profile. NFPA Research, 1–6.

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Groysberg, B., Nohria, N., & Fernández-Aráoz, C. (2009, May). The definitive guide to recruiting in good times and bad. Harvard Business Review.

Hardinson, C. M., Lim, N., Keller, K. M., Marquis, J. P., Payne, L. A., Bozick, R., Mariano, L. T., Mauro, J. A., Miyashiro, L., Oak, G., & Saum-Manning, L. (2015). Recommendations for improving the recruiting and hiring of Los Angeles firefighters [Report]. RAND Corporation.

Dr. Michael Cunningham is a 16-year veteran of the fire service, currently serving as a division chief, chief of staff to the fire chief with Cobb County (Ga.) Fire & Emergency Services. He has spent his career as a firefighter and fire officer, as a training division instructor, and as a member of the administrative senior staff educating firefighters in the areas of fire behavior and firefighting tactics, leadership, career development, and diversity and inclusion. Dr. Cunningham has a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology, a master’s degree in business administration, a bachelor’s degree in computer science, a bachelor’s degree in professional aeronautics, and an associate degree in avionic systems technology. Dr. Cunningham can be reached via email.