What it means to really commit to a diverse and inclusive fire department

Consistency and persistence of inclusive values will help the fire service leaders move beyond hollow proclamations of diversity


The American fire service heralds proud traditions and prideful service to the communities its members serve.

The world is diverse and so too are our communities. Being able to have an organization that represents the diversity of your community enhances the connectedness, credibility and trust the community has with its first responders.

However, why do fire organizations, in general, not match the demographics of their respective communities? The NFPA report statistic that 82% identify as white (not Hispanic) is noteworthy. An even more stark contrast is that 96% of career firefighters are men. This is where we begin our conversation on creating a diverse and inclusive fire service workforce.

Organizational leadership needs to work closely with human resources in the recruitment and onboarding effort of new members. (Photos/Baltimore City FD Chief Niles Ford)
Organizational leadership needs to work closely with human resources in the recruitment and onboarding effort of new members. (Photos/Baltimore City FD Chief Niles Ford)

What’s the difference between diverse and inclusive?

The two terms, diversity and inclusivity, are often conflated – but they are not the same.

Diversity is often spoken of in terms of metrics. This is the raw data set that creates the composite sketch of our organizations. Often represented in percentiles, raw-scores, pie-charts, Venn-diagrams and other empirical representations, diversity is a measurement.

As explained in “Managing Workplace Diversity and Inclusion,” “When the term diversity first became popular in the 1980s, it referred to changes in demographic characteristics of the labor force and work organizations, particularly race, ethnicity and sex.”

If diversity illustrates what our organizations look like, inclusivity is the why. In other words, diversity is objective, and inclusivity is the subjective representation of our fire service culture. Diversity is more concerned with data, whereas inclusivity is the spirit of the organization. Diversity could be considered the procedural methodology of bringing members into the organization, and inclusivity is the ecosystem within our organizations that leads members to feel equally productive and able to participate in meaningful work. Without a sense of inclusion some, “may feel like the outsider within; They may experience special stresses, resign prematurely, remain stagnated at entry levels in the organization, or even be terminated,” according to “Managing Workplace Diversity and Inclusion.”

Benefits of a diverse work environment

The benefits of diverse and inclusive work environments are well documented. In “Creating the Multicultural Organization,” Taylor Cox, Jr. says it is not just value-added but essential to achieving full organizational potential. These well-documented benefits include increased problem-solving abilities, creativity and innovation, organizational flexibility, and attracting human talent.

The first of these benefits lands on our fire service organization to offer enhanced innovation. The ability to provide adaptive solutions to technical problems is increased by diverse life experiences. The fire service should strive to seek more than diversity based on race, age and sex, but also on the diversity of thought. Through this diversity, creative and innovative solutions to stagnated paradigms and impediments can be challenged, changed and moved beyond.

From proclaiming diversity to promoting diversity

Fire service organizational leadership is under internal and external pressure to expand their rosters to reflect a more diverse and inclusive organization. Merely proclaiming that one is committed to the mantra of being, “diverse and inclusive” is echoing hollowly with many communities. But this is not a problem so much as an opportunity.

The fire service must go much further than just promoting diversity and inclusivity. The fire service is notorious for promoting “[fill in the blank] Awareness Week.” The resolve to create a culture and workforce that values diversity and inclusivity can only be accomplished with deliberate and purposive actions, not just empty platitudes.

I had the opportunity to speak with Niles Ford Ph.D., the fire chief of the Baltimore City Fire Department, to discuss the importance of diversity and what we as a profession can do to introduce diversity in the ranks.

Chief Ford has confronted the issue of creating diverse and inclusive organizations his entire life. One of the biggest problems, he says, is, “If people don’t see themselves in the role, how can we ever attract them to the profession?” He further asserts: “I must take intentional and deliberate action. Sometimes this will be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary to achieve the desired result. Diversity will not happen without intentionality.”

If we say we value or believe in diverse and inclusive workforces, then those values must be acted on. As a profession, the fire service leverages its credibility on its values and beliefs, with teamwork, leadership and safety being among the most popular. Just as these values and beliefs can be acted on, so too then can diversity and inclusivity.

3 challenges to the commitment

Bridging the gap from the current reality to a desired state require a commitment to diversity and inclusivity.

The challenge has been simply stated, but creating and sustaining an effective response can be difficult and complex. As Cox writes: “Past efforts have often fallen short for three main reasons: (1) failure to recognize that the central problem is the presence of a diversity-toxic organizational culture, (2) a consequent failure to take a systems approach to meet the challenge of diversity, and (3) the mistake of thinking that the learning curve is steep rather than flat.”

We should disabuse ourselves of any illusion that one or many of these factors do not exist in our profession and culture. At the forefront of this seems to be inconsistent or shifting messaging.

Changes will only occur when leaders believe and make the necessary changes to reflect underlying values and beliefs. This needs to be supported with the firm belief that those changes will make their organization better.

Attracting a strong talent pool

Fire service organizations that have embraced diversity and inclusivity as a demonstrated value are able to attract and retain a more diverse talent pool. When people feel they are appreciated and can be themselves – within the constraints of organizational regulations – they will be inclined to be engaged and produce their best work. A diverse and inclusive workforce that is valued for their contributions provides a synergistic effect on the workplace and community.

According to Chief Ford, “The reason we exist is to serve our communities.” With this in mind, and in an effort to demonstrate his commitment to a diverse and inclusive Baltimore City Fire Department, Ford has worked with his community to create selection panels for fire and EMS initial hirings. The panels are convened to assess eligible candidates to fill the organizational ranks. “The community participates in picking those individuals that best represent the community,” he explains. “Once they have made their selections, my training staff will train those recruits to do the job.”

This initial step leverages community responsibility with a pride of ownership in the City’s fire department. Ford believes these actions have a demonstrated value to the fire service and community, and that this process has been both transactional and transformational. (For more information on Chief Ford’s use of community panels, please view the video “BCFD Community Panel Assessors.”)

Leadership support needed

Now that we have discussed diversity and inclusivity, plus its benefits to individuals, the organization and communities, let’s discuss how we can promote and create a more diverse and inclusive fire service.

Creating a diverse and inclusive fire organization shouldn't end with adherence to federal law or the responsibility of top leadership. It's important to remember to work in increments; creating a diverse, inclusive organization is a marathon, not a sprint.

The fire service embraces the virtue of values-based leadership. So, rightly, having our leaders and managers on board with the organizational values and beliefs is critical for any program, initiative or ethos. The senior leadership needs to demonstrate that inclusive behavior is an organizational value.

Recruitment, selection and hiring

If the effort begins with leadership, the effects will be evident in recruiting. Organizational leadership needs to work closely with human resources in the recruitment and onboarding effort. Attention should be paid to understanding which underrepresented groups need to be engaged. To this end, the fire service should seek out community organizations and schools to help recruit from eligible applicants. One of the most inclusive efforts that can be taken is using job advertising and descriptions that are presented with encouraging inclusive language and images.

Engaging our recognized leaders to be good opportunity managers is key. If your only recruitment tool is the internet and social media, you're missing the mark. As Tammy Binford explains in “Getting Social Media Recruiting on the Right Track for Diversity,” unless you have the inside track on social media algorithms, your fire service organization is probably not even visible to half of your constituent community. Developing a presence at job fairs, trade schools, universities, high school career days, parades and city/municipal-sponsored events is an excellent way to showcase your organization as a diverse and inclusive place to work.

Right behind the effort of recruitment should be selection and hiring practices. The panel of those selecting new recruits (or transfers for that matter) should be as diverse organizationally as possible. This is a proactive step to preventing natural bias from taking place. Bias is normal and expected, but if diverse and inclusive recruitment is your goal, it should be represented in your selection panel. Diverse selection panels demonstrate the opportunity to highlight an individual's diversity as a strength to the organization and community.

Value inclusivity and feedback throughout the organization

Organizational training is important to demonstrate and instill within the membership what is valued. This is no different for cultivating a diverse and inclusive workforce. Demonstrate your commitment to not only a safe workplace, but an environment that embraces differences in race, color, religion, age and the other long list of federally protected classes, not because it's the law, but because it’s in alignment with your organization values. Ultimately, the culture of diversity and inclusivity will incrementally grow where it is supported. Opportunities need to be seized upon that foster peer-to-peer, bottom-up and top-down organizational engagement and community involvement.

Encourage the sharing of ideas and feedback. Evaluate what works and what doesn’t. This begins with soliciting feedback and open respectful dialogue. The sharing of ideas and feedback should also include promptly dealing with complaints of harassment or discrimination. Taking prompt, fair and immediate action to claims speaks volumes on your credibility in your stated values. Early intervention can often be the difference between a teachable moment and a pervasive violation or adverse action for the organizational culture and a bruised reputation with the community.

Consistency, not intensity, will move us forward

As the statistics show, the odds are not in our favor. We as a profession are uniquely not a diverse profession. It will be the consistency, not the intensity, at which we address diversity and inclusivity that will make the difference. Approaching issues and opportunities with intentionality will produce long-term desired outcomes. Often the largest challenges are the ones so easily overlooked – the elephant in the room. Creating a more diverse and inclusive fire service is an opportunity and responsibility, but only if we see it that way. My challenge to our profession is to move forward incrementally and with intentionality to become representative of the communities we all proudly serve.

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