Roadmap for recruiting diverse firefighters

It takes more planning, effort and money, but progressive recruiting builds solid firefighter candidates from a diverse pool

By James E. Garrett Jr.

Rapid changes have become a constant for the American fire service. Changes in risk patterns, changes in response and deployment strategies, changes in training, changes in budget and resources, changes in politics — all these and more impact our departments and the people who serve within them. 

What they all have in common is their connection to changes in the people and communities we serve. 

A fire department’s ability to adapt to all these is influenced by many things. One of the most important, but one often given less emphasis from an operational perspective, is the department’s ability to diversify its personnel to reflect the people and interests of the communities it serves.  

Not all that long ago, the fire service might have been described as a mechanically, strategically and technologically advanced version of the old-time bucket brigades — a practiced and orchestrated mechanism to get water to the seat of a fire. 

Today, we are so much more. We still do fire, but we’re our communities’ principal source of protection and response for all hazards from auto crashes to heart attacks.

Whatever life throws their way, our citizens expect that we will be first on the scene and that we will find a way to protect them. What these situations most have in common is the critical role of up close, direct human interactions.

Consider a house fire serving a population that does not speak sufficient English to tell responders of their injuries, account for missing occupants or explain what happened. 

Consider a drive-by shooting with racial overtones where responders have to navigate volatile and charged emotions. Or simply consider the parents of a critically ill child looking to relate to the helpers who just walked through their door. 

The winning team

Any time we can have at least a member or two of our team who can fit seamlessly into the situation, the better our effectiveness can be for everyone involved.

When we were strictly a fire suppression force, we were apt to be most effective when the hardiest, strongest, fastest and most similar members were working together as a team. Today brings us into a different game. 

Now, it’s more like Trivial Pursuit, where we arrive on the porch to find the occupant pulling a card from a huge box of questions and issues. In Trivial Pursuit, the team that wins isn’t the one that’s most alike — it’s the one with enough diversity that, whatever the question, someone is likely to know how to take it on.

Still, when we glance at the national fire service landscape, we see an overwhelming preponderance of white males. As more and more public safety entities scramble to recruit minorities and women, many feel that they are met with a certain uninterested vibe from many candidates they attempt to recruit. 

We rightly desire the best and brightest. But the best and brightest candidates, especially among minority groups, are also being heavily recruited for numerous occupations and opportunities. We have to find ways to grab and hold their interest in the career path we offer. 

So what can we do to effectively and successfully reach women and minorities who may be ready, willing and able to help us continue America’s proudest community service?  

Progressive recruiting

Fire departments need to know how to identify effective recruitment, selection and retention practices that can help them achieve a workforce that reflects the community they serve.

Successful recruiting programs typically combine variations of conventional approaches with new and innovative approaches designed to appeal to women and minorities.

For example, conventional methods like direct mail cards, word of mouth, newsletters and general advertising should reflect the range of racial, gender and ethnic the community holds in photos, text and message.  

This certainly helps, but is it enough? Increasing the diversity of the pool will almost always require additional strategies to be layered atop those conventional approaches, specifically targeted to the various populations sought.

We call that progressive recruiting.

The more successful departments in this effort, as identified by the diversity outcomes achieved, are those that use current members to actively reach out and engage those within their respective communities.  

Direct engagement

Many young persons from underrepresented groups simply haven’t thought of the fire service as a career path that includes and values people like themselves. When they look at who populates the fire service, they may not have seen a whole lot of individuals who look like them. 

Progressive recruitment tries to directly engage them in ways that can deliver a distinctly promising message about their future in a diverse and responsive fire service.

Progressive recruiting typically requires more work, more capital and a lot more activity. It combines a wide range of strategies, each precisely directed toward a specific target group.  

Progressive approaches can include recruiting in different municipalities or in specific regions within a metropolitan area. It will include recruiting advertisements designed specifically for women or underserved groups, placed in media outlets selected on the basis of their proven capacity to reach those particular populations.   

Other strategies may include targeted social networking campaigns and neighborhood-specific outreach programs, where messaging is focused on person-to-person contacts to increase the likelihood of applying for a fire service opening. 

The most innovative and potentially effective longer term strategies drill even further. These approaches seek to reach young persons well before the time of ordinary recruitment and application.

They identify promising individuals in underrepresented populations and recruit them into programs that can capture their interest, develop their skills, build their connection and commitment, and prepare them to succeed.

KCFD pilot programs

KCFD is beginning a series of pilot programs to evaluate strategies for this type of progressive recruitment.

Two programs in particular demonstrate how progressive recruitment can be used to identify potential candidates far earlier and build them into skilled and ready recruits by the time ordinary applications would be entered.

Working in close cooperation with the Kansas City Public Schools system and the Metropolitan Community College District, KCFD has a selective vocational training program for high school seniors that prepares them to enter as pre-apprentices upon graduation. 

Successful students hold a Missouri EMT-B license in addition to their high school diploma. Their vocational training, taking a half day throughout their senior year, also teaches them about many aspects of fire service work and careers, and includes experience in fire service settings as a part of their EMT clinicals. 

Students who complete this program, graduate high school and earn their EMT licenses can work for up to a year as fully employed pre-apprentices in the KCFD EMS system. Since the minimum age for employment is 19, this helps hold their interest, develop their skills and broaden their experience as they prepare to compete for full-time positions. 

It works, they work

Since many of these students come from at-risk backgrounds, it also helps them stay focused on their prospects and supports their continued growth and maturation. 

Students can also elect to continue into paramedic training with the Metropolitan Community Colleges Center for Health Sciences, supported in part by a scholarship program created by the city and donations from KCFD supporters in the community. 

Community college staff work with students to gather all available financial aid, with the KCFD scholarship serving as final-dollar support to close any gaps in financial need.

In its first year of availability, the scholarships have helped nearly a dozen paramedic candidates. Several have already become members of KCFD, and others are in queue for consideration.

This sort of investment involves thinking well ahead, building strong partnerships and taking certain risks to build the potential for important returns downstream. The benefit, however, is helping create the kind of future we want for our department and our service. 

The greatest strengths of the American fire service have always been found in its creative ability to tackle the problems our communities face and our steadfast commitment to take the best we have to offer and make it even better.

Progressive recruitment is one more example of who we are at our finest and who we can be in the future.


About the author
James E. Garrett Jr. is deputy chief for the Kansas City (Mo.) Fire Department who oversees the public relations/community relations bureau. He holds a master’s degree in public administration

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2023 FireRescue1. All rights reserved.