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Assimilation and accommodation: Both are critical to fire service cultural change

A quick history lesson shows how we can welcome new members and honor our past


Today, as we discuss such concepts as diversity and equity, we must also discuss the assimilation of cultures into the fire service, just as we have in the past.


Assimilation – the cultural absorption of a minority group into the main cultural body.

Accommodation – an adjustment, adaptation or adjustment to make a better fit.

I am a student of history, especially history of the U.S. fire service and military. Over the years, I’ve drawn upon the similarities of these organizations, and I hope to be able to do so again here in our discussion of how to achieve accommodation and assimilation within our ranks.

Wartime connections

As far back as the Civil War, the United States military formed integrated units that consisted mostly of African American soldiers lead by predominately Caucasian officers. Perhaps the most famous unit was the Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment lead by Col. Robert Gould Shaw who died alongside his men gallantly storming Ft. Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina on July 19, 1863. This unit, depicted in the movie “Glory,” is memorialized in a monument near the Boston Commons, directly across from the Massachusetts State Capitol.

Little changed in the military until the Second World War with the introduction of a group of African American Army Air Force (AAF) fighter pilots, commanded by African American officers, known as the Tuskegee Airmen. To their fellow aviators, they were known as the “Red Tails” for the distinctive red markings on the tail of their P-51 combat fighters. The Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves by being one of the most effective guardians of the AAF’s vulnerable bomber groups whose mission was to penetrate deeply into Nazi Germany to smash the industrial areas that manufactured the weapons of war.

As a young officer in the U.S. Air Force, I met a few of these great pilots, now senior officers, who were still on active duty. Later in life, I subsequently met more of the Tuskegee Airmen during a reunion held in Columbus, Ohio, while I was the state fire marshal, and later at the opening of a gallery in their honor at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. It was a humbling experience to be among these legends of history and to speak with such noble men who lead the way not only in air battles against the Luftwaffe over Europe, but also in the final integration of the military.

The fire service in many ways also parallels the story of our military. Several cities had all-African American fire companies serving in African American neighborhoods following the Civil War, but the first real attempts at integration started after World War II. I’m sorry to say that the integration of the fire service was not universally accepted by many in the 1950s.

Over time, with subsequent generations, some progress, especially in metropolitan areas, began to materialize with minority recruitment that attempted to mirror the communities they served, but that progress is still far from fully achieved.

Assimilation in action

During my fire service career, probably my most beneficial educational experience was being given a scholarship to the Kennedy School for State and Local Government, sponsored jointly by the USFA and NFPA. It was there that I met such notable fire service leaders as Otis Latin, fire chief in Washington, D.C.; Debra Amesqua, then-training chief in Tallahassee, Florida, later to become the fire chief in Madison, Wisconsin, and a champion of women and equality in the fire service; and Darrell Higushi, deputy chief of operations for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, who taught me so much about taking care of one’s firefighters.

This small group had several long discussions on issues within the fire service, and I came back with a better understanding on subjects like inclusiveness and accommodation, especially for the needs of women in the fire service.

The Kennedy experience also confirmed for me the value of diversity in a department. In retrospect, however, one area not yet discussed is the need for the modern fire service to not only diversify, but also practice assimilation and accommodation to make increased diversity a key part of fire service culture.

Let me elaborate. I am a descendant of German immigrants who settled in Ohio in the 1850s. Our family embraced the opportunities afforded us in this country, and family members have fought in every major war from the Civil War to the War on Terror. But during World War I, anyone of German heritage was looked upon by some with suspicion because of the fierce anti-German sentiment that swept our country. Both the families of my mother and father were harassed at times because the spelling of their surnames decidedly showed a Germanic origin. Several relatives altered the spelling of our last name and stopped speaking in German, even in the households of their grandparents, to avoid harassment.

The same has been true at other times in our history for those of Irish, Italian, Greek or other countries of origin. Specifically, in the fire service, the acceptance of new immigrants from Ireland or Italy didn’t come overnight. Even before there was an Ellis Island, there were immigrants from these countries and others who traveled to the United States with little more than the clothes they wore and some meager savings.

The immigrants who settled in metropolitan areas developed their own volunteer fire companies that proudly served their neighborhood. A great deal of the assimilation of these companies came during and following the Civil War. During that war, the Zouaves were volunteer regiments composed of firefighters from nearly all ethnicities. Their common bond was being firefighters. Their motto: “In peace, fireman, in war soldiers.” Upon their return, these highly decorated and disciplined groups of soldiers again became firefighters, forming the basis of the newly formed paid career fire departments and our departments being organized along military lines into companies, battalions, divisions, etc.

The fire service connection

So, what might assimilation and accommodation look like for the U.S. fire service in the near future? First, it’s not just diversity that we should be trying to achieve, but also assimilation. This includes an acceptance both by the fire service and the new recruits of the standards and practices that make us all firefighters, who provide professional fire and EMS, whether career or volunteer, for the betterment of all in our communities.

Second, in our accommodation, we need to provide for individual acceptance and privacy, including personal space. Every new fire station being built today should accommodate all firefighters with a private bedroom and at least a semi-private shower and restroom facility. Why? Because as we accommodate all, we need to understand that some, for example, may need to be provided the opportunity to quietly worship privately several times a day. That accommodation works both ways, as the firefighter needs to understand that while on a call they may miss one of those opportunities while serving their community or training to keep them safe.

The transition that has taken place in the United Kingdom’s fire service during the past 20 years serves as a good example. A strategic goal for the fire service at the start of the 21st century, which currently falls under the control of the Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser to the Ministry of Local Government, was to assimilate members from many different ethnic groups who had settled in the United Kingdom into their fire service.

The plan initially included a campaign to recruit immigrants from both the UK’s Commonwealth of Nations and those individuals from the European Union (EU) nations that had settled in the UK during the open borders of the EU. Since the UK’s exit from the EU (Brexit), and the restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not been able to visit with friends to hear directly of their progress in this campaign of assimilation in the fire service.

As an aside, however, I do know first-hand that prior to Brexit, both the Fire Brigades of Ireland and Northern Ireland were concerned over the potential impact of having new borders in place following Brexit that might affect the automatic aid that for many years had been given by each brigade to their neighboring country.

Final thoughts

Today, as we discuss such concepts as diversity and equity, we must also discuss the assimilation of cultures into the fire service, just as we have in the past. We should also learn from the attempts of other countries like the U.K. to determine what works and what doesn’t. Nonetheless, and equally as important, we need to learn how to make accommodations for these new recruits, both individually and collectively, so together we can continue to embrace the traditions, heritages and cultures that makes us all firefighters.

There is room and a need for us all!

Stay safe!

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.

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