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Breaking through cultural barriers: Serve with professionalism

America's diverse population can make things complicated for the fire service, but addressing the issue prevents it from being a problem


Looking into one’s genealogy is always interesting, and can give us insight into our culture. My wife’s family arrived in America from Denmark in the mid-18th century, and one of her relatives served in the Continental Army fighting for our independence during the American Revolution. My family didn’t arrive from Germany until the 1850s, but served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Both of our families histories are rooted in immigration, and they were once newcomers to this nation.

Immigration has been a hot topic in both Europe and the U.S. for several years, and continues to be discussed by both the legislative and executive branches of our federal government. No matter how you feel about this issue, the fire service endeavors to serve everyone equally with care, consideration and professionalism.

Nearly every major population center has a Chinatown, Little Italy, Rhineland or Irish neighborhood that preserves certain heritages while standing as a testimony to that era of immigration in our country. Many early volunteer fire companies were organized in part by area that was defined by an ethnic descent. While rivalries persisted, all of these fire companies came together for the common good when threatened by a conflagration, a practice which continues today.

How do we know that new immigrants have settled in our area, and how do we communicate with them? (Photo/Pixabay)
How do we know that new immigrants have settled in our area, and how do we communicate with them? (Photo/Pixabay)

Cultural norms may prove to be a barrier to fire service operations

During my time as chief in a suburban community several years ago, my department regularly responded on automatic aid to structure fires in a neighboring community. One of the high-hazard risks was an apartment complex that sat immediately across from our corporation line, which had a majority of tenants originally from Somalia.

We had identified this population because of the frequent calls for EMS and the fact that my department also provided the paramedic service for our neighbors when the emergency required Advanced Life Support (ALS). If we were fortunate on those occasions, a school-aged child might be available to help translate for us, an asset especially when we were dealing with an older patient.

The complex was especially vulnerable to working fires. Several fire calls were delayed alarms as a family member searched for someone in the building who knew how to call 911 and spoke English well enough to report the fire. We knew that if the fire was being reported by a child, the chances were greater that it would be a worker due to the delay.

To further complicate matters, the apartment complex contained a hierarchy of elders, some who understood the importance of reporting a fire immediately, and others who had a distrust for anyone in uniform based on their individual experience in their home country. On occasion during a fire, the elders would gather lawn chairs in the parking lot adjacent to the complex and watch the actions of the firefighters. Even when having to rescue people over ladders, the elders sometimes questioned why the firefighters had to physically come into contact with those they were rescuing.

Resolving the issues at this apartment complex was relatively easy. The Somalians wanted to live in an area where they felt comfortable with the customs and language of their neighbors. To that extent, the neighboring fire department preplanned the complex, including finding those individuals willing to help not only to translate in an emergency, but also to explain how to prevent or lessen the frequency and severity of fires within the apartment complex.

By comparison, I recently visited with a chief from a mid-sized fire department, that within a month had three separate residential structure fires across several miles of their response area where in each case the residents spoke only their native language: Senegalese, Spanish and Korean. Each one indicated a different way that cultural norms presented as a barrier to fire safety.

1. A hierarchy of elders prevents decision making

The most serious of these was a working kitchen fire in a well-established neighborhood. The fire was called in by a neighbor, who was alerted to the danger when two windows of the house blew out from the intensity. The fire investigation team found that a teenager who spoke Wolof, one of several Senegalese languages, as well as a little French, had been preparing the evening meal for her parents, who were both working. Even though she was alerted to the fire by a smoke alarm, tradition and culture dictated that a young woman could not make any major decisions on her own.

When the fire started, the young girl called her mother at work, who in turn called the father, who was working at another location. The father left his work, drove to pick up his wife and together were approaching their home as the first fire units were making entry. The damage to the home was extensive, but fortunately the teenager had correctly decided to safely evacuate herself and her siblings prior to the arrival of the fire department.

2. Misunderstanding the importance of fire prevention methods

The second fire involved a Spanish-speaking family who resided in a duplex that had recently been renovated. The fire began near an entertainment center, but was determined to most likely have been caused by a candle that tipped over. Multiple candles and incense used primarily for religious purposes were found throughout the house. Batteries in the smoke alarms had been removed prior to the fire, in part because the candles and incense frequently caused them to sound.

While the department distributed bilingual fire safety literature, the family had never associated the dangers of using unattended candles as something that could cause a major fire, nor realized the purpose of the smoke alarms was to alert them of an uncontrolled fire.

3. Assuming restrictions and regulations are the same in America

The final, and least serious, fire occurred when this department was dispatched to the report of a structure fire near a major intersection. Instead, responding companies found a large, open burn in the rear of a structure that they quickly contained and extinguished. The Korean family, in an attempt to tidy the appearance of their home, had raked the dried leaves in their yard into a large pile and set it on fire for disposal. Though a standard practice in many areas of Korea, the family was unaware of the restrictions on open burns due to both air quality standards and existing moderate drought conditions.

In all of these instances, firefighters encountered both a cultural and language barrier that hampered their attempts to communicate with the residents. This brought about a question: How do we know that new immigrants have settled in our area, and how do we communicate with them?

Fortunately, when called, the 911 Communications Center serving the community has the ability to quickly get a translation service on the line to help describe the type of the emergency. However, it was important to find a way for the firefighters to communicate fire and medical safety tips when bilingual materials in that language are not readily available.

How to prepare the fire service for populations that may present cultural barriers

The department’s Community Risk Reduction personnel came up with two ways to identify new populations with cultural norms that may pose a barrier to fire safety and education.

First, they contacted the local school district to determine what families had registered children that needed assistance in learning English as a second language. The school district had already set up a special preschool for young children and an after school program to assist older children with their English, so this request was not difficult for them.

The second contact was to area churches. A few churches in the area had started Spanish-speaking mid-week worship services, followed by an adult English language class. Another church, just out of the department’s immediate response area, had helped start a separate Korean Christian Church with similar goals.

Utilizing these venues for outreach, the department has begun to translate public education information on fire and car seat safety for these newer arrivals in a way they can understand and digest.

While this may not be a perfect solution, it is a start and does continue the goal of the fire service to serve their entire community with care, consideration and professionalism.

Stay safe!

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