Panel discusses diversity in fire service at FDIC

The panel was asked to define equality and describe what diversity in the fire service should be like

By Jamie Thompson
FireRescue1 Senior Editor

INDIANAPOLIS — Issues surrounding diversity in the fire service were discussed during a session at FDIC Thursday.

Among the three-member strong panel was Lt. Frank Ricci, the lead plaintiff of the "New Haven 20," which came to national prominence last year when the US Supreme Court ruled that the group of white firefighters were unfairly denied promotions because of their race.

Photo Jamie Thompson Chief Horvath speaks at FDIC.
Photo Jamie Thompson
Chief Horvath speaks at FDIC.

Asked what impact the ruling will have on the fire service, Lt. Ricci said it shows the need to have a standard.

"Everyone needs to be treated equally and everyone needs to meet the standard," he said.

If you set the standard that everyone has to meet, Lt. Ricci said, then it doesn't matter what color or sex you are.

"I think it puts America back where America should be and it puts the fire service where the fire service needs to be, where merit matters," he said of the ruling.

Division Chief of Training Cheryl Horvath, of the Northwest Fire District, Ariz., who was also on the panel, said from her perspective there can be more than merit when looking at somebody's ability to do the job.

Lt. Joseph B. Muhammad, of the White Plains, N.Y., Fire Department and President of International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, said other people saw the validity of the New Haven promotional testing process differently to Lt. Ricci.

He told the audience that everyone could at least agree that the fire service is the greatest profession in the world.

But he highlighted the importance of having a diversity of members and the fact that people within the fire service have different perspectives, using an analogy of a diamond.

"When you look at the diamond, depending on where the diamond is in the room, how the light reflects it will determine your vantage point of what you see in the diamond," Lt. Muhammad said.

"When you talk about coming together and understanding each other, this is part of my upbringing: to know that other people are seeing the same diamond but seeing it a bit differently because of the light and where they are sitting."

During the course of the discussion, Lt. Ricci said equality for him was a simple concept.

"Anyone can excel in America, you've just got to put your best foot forward, just go out and get it," he said.

When asked what exactly diversity can and should be like in the fire service, Chief Horvath said the most recent studies show that women make up just under four percent of the paid fire service while the national average of women in "non–traditional jobs" stands at 17 percent.

However, she said she witnessed encouraging signs while taking a recent class at the National Fire Academy.

"There were 22 people in our class and there were four women," she said. "It was really interesting because for the first time I didn't feel like I was the only one there.

"I think there were enough women in the room that I certainly did not feel I was different."

Chief Horvath said a diverse workforce could be defined as "the point where you get to when you don't feel the difference any more."

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