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7 steps to an inclusive fire department culture

Promoting recruitment and retention for diversity throughout the firefighter career lifecycle helps departments achieve success today and tomorrow


Diversity is about counting people. Inclusion is about making people count. Diversity is about the ingredients, the mix of people and perspectives. Inclusion is about the container – the place that allows employees to feel they belong, to feel both accepted and different. To achieve success today and tomorrow in meeting the challenges it faces, a fire department needs a group of people who think differently – in a place that's safe to share those differences [1].

Inclusiveness is the degree to which a workplace or organization has created an environment in which everyone is treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success [1].

It is incumbent upon fire officers and firefighters to have a clear understanding of how the concepts of diversity and inclusion differ. (Photo/NYAssembly.gov)
It is incumbent upon fire officers and firefighters to have a clear understanding of how the concepts of diversity and inclusion differ. (Photo/NYAssembly.gov)

It is incumbent upon fire officers and firefighters to have a clear understanding of how the concepts of diversity and inclusion differ. Many fire departments may be working diligently to attract more women and people of color to fire/EMS. But if those same organizations are not looking for ways that those people can be involved and successful in the organization, those same people will choose not to stay, thus creating a retention problem for those departments.

What makes up fire service culture?

Former MIT Sloan School of Management professor Edgar Henry Schein developed a model of organizational culture in the 1980s. Schein identifies three distinct levels in an organization’s culture [1]:

  1. Artifacts include any tangible, overt or verbally identifiable elements in an organization. Artifacts are the visible elements in a culture that can be recognized by outsiders. Common artifacts in the fire service include uniforms, rank structures, functional unit designations (e.g., engine company, truck company or rescue company) and insignias (e.g., badges, departmental patches and the Maltese Cross).
  2. Espoused values include the organization's stated values and rules of behavior. It is how the members represent the organization both to themselves and to others. Values are often expressed in official philosophies and public statements of identity. They can often be a projection for the future, of what the members hope to become. Examples of espoused values in the fire service might include mission statements, goals for recruitment and retention of employees/members, and mission statements like, “recognizing our people as the key to our successes.” Conflict can arise if espoused values by leaders are not in line with the deeper tacit assumptions of the culture.
  3. Shared basic assumptions are the deeply embedded, taken-for-granted behaviors which are usually unconscious, but constitute the essence of culture. These assumptions are typically so well integrated in the workplace dynamic that they are hard to recognize, even by those within the organization. These shared assumptions are communicated by the dominant group and new members of the organization either embrace them (and become part of the dominant group) or resist them and become identified as a member of the non-dominant group.
Schein model of organizational culture.

I believe a fire service leader looking to elevate the degree of inclusiveness in their fire department must begin with coming to grips with the fact that their organizational culture likely has a genetic footprint, that is, a culture that’s been created by the dominant group.

This is not about male-bashing. I’m a middle-aged white male myself – have been all my life. Rather, it’s addressing that the policies and procedures, operating practices and the very culture for most fire departments are the product of the dominant group, white males who have constituted the majority (and still do) in those departments.

If the dominant group is giving preference, consciously or unconsciously, to people with experiences like the dominant group (e.g., past military service, trade experience, or similar levels of education), then they are limiting the selection pool.

Making your fire department more inclusive cannot be achieved through written policies or training alone. It will require active leadership up and down your department’s chain-of-command. Figure 2 illustrates a process for developing an organizational climate that supports greater inclusion for all members (yes, all members – because as the saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats”).

The lifecycle of an inclusive recruitment retention program. (Figure/Robert Avsec)

Inclusion can only truly become a part of your fire department’s DNA if it’s thought of and designed into the entire personnel development process. Here are seven steps to recruitment and retention for inclusion:

1. Fire department succession planning

Succession planning for a fire department is a critical leadership and management function, but it’s not what most people think it is. Succession planning is not about determining who should advance within the organization or strictly training specific individuals for promotion [2].

Rather, it should be an exercise in planning for all the potential human resource needs of the organization for continued growth, development and success. This process should also include the diversity goals of the organization, how it will achieve those diversity goals, and how everyone in the organization is given information and access and development opportunities that make them a more valuable asset to the organization. The goal of a good succession plan should be to get as many people into the available talent pool as possible, not limit who can get into the pool [2].

2. Firefighter recruitment

What fire department leaders learn from developing a succession plan should drive the department’s recruitment goals and efforts. Recruiting strategies, materials and staff assigned to recruiting efforts must include members from the non-dominant group.

3. The Hiring Process

Hiring interviews conducted by a panel consisting only of members of the dominant group are one way to start excluding rather than including people in your fire department, perhaps before they even get a foot in the door.

The hiring process needs to have linkage with the recruiting process. How does the department benefit if its recruiters are successful in getting a diverse group of applicants to apply, only to have an interview panel composed solely of members from the dominant group select mostly only candidates who will fit in with the dominant group?

4. Fire service career paths

I was deeply impressed the first time that I read the Phoenix Fire Department’s employee handbook that was entitled, “The Phoenix Fire Department Way.” Right there on the first page was a career roadmap (drawn in Chief Brunacini style) showing the new firefighter all of the different job assignments – both lateral and vertical – that they could pursue as a member of the Phoenix Fire Department, right up to being the chief of the department.

But it was more than an eye-catching map. The handbook also included the additional training, education and any perquisite job assignments that were required for every job opportunity. Now that’s what I consider a great motivator and a good initial step for developing a sense of inclusion in a new member!

5. Entry-level training

Making meaningful changes regarding inclusion in the fire service will require efforts that go beyond recruiting. We must start the retention process at the very beginning of a new firefighter’s career for both career and volunteer firefighters.

It’s also important to have women and people of color teaching your newest employees or members. Seeing and working with members of the non-dominant group in leadership positions, such as leading a recruit training class or serving as instructors, early in their career can have a positive influence on those newbies – an influence that can make a difference in an entire career.

Instructors who are representative of your department’s non-dominant group are more likely to be in tune with how best to teach what needs to be taught and how to teach it. A fire service colleague, Fire Chief Judy Smith Thill, shared a training experience she witnessed [3]:

“I observed one recruit instructor who held up a chainsaw and did a straw poll by saying, ‘Who all knows how to start a chainsaw, or maybe I should ask who doesn’t know how to start a chainsaw?’ He never even waited for the answer and just moved on.”

It’s important instructors:

  • Don’t skim over things,
  • Don’t assume the recruits all have the same knowledge and experience levels, and
  • Don’t isolate or embarrass recruits who come in with a different skill or knowledge base.

6. On-boarding for everyone

On-boarding is not a new concept in the business world. It goes beyond simple orientation; it familiarizes the new hire with the culture and the goals of the organization. It’s a proven employment technique that helps a new hire feel more valued and can in turn create a new employee who is truer to those values [4].

On-boarding should be a part of any future assignments for individuals as well. Any time an individual moves to a new assignment (e.g., from one station to another or from emergency operations to a staff position in another division of the department), there should be an on-boarding process. That process should include everything that the individual needs to know to start being comfortable and successful in his or her new environment.

7. Promotional processes

Firefighters have a greater chance of being successful when seeking promotion if they know what the rules are well in advance of seeking promotion.

  • What training and education do they need to become a qualified candidate for promotion?
  • What job experiences do they need to have to make them a qualified candidate for promotion?
  • How will they be assessed as a candidate for promotion (e.g., written exams, oral exams, assessment center, or some other methodology)?

Just like the interview panel for hiring, any promotional panel must include members from the non-dominant group. If the department does not have officers from the non-dominant group to serve on promotional panels, it should develop reciprocal agreements with neighboring departments who can provide such representation.

My former department, the Chesterfield County (Va.) Fire and EMS Department, was in such a position in the 1980s. The department lacked diversity in the ranks above the firefighter level. Our leadership diversified its promotional panels by including officers from other fire departments and middle managers from other county departments. This methodology continued to be used for promotional panels until more members of the non-dominant group had been promoted through the ranks.

I began this article by outlining the differences between the terms diversity and inclusiveness. However, they are the yin and the yang for a creating an organizational culture that’s successful at inviting people to the party and ensuring that those invited to the party get asked to dance.

References

  1. Wikipedia. “Edgar Schein.” Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Schein
  2. Avsec, R. “Succession Planning in the Chesterfield Fire and EMS Department.” Executive Fire Officer Program. Applied Research Project. Available at: https://nfa.usfa.fema.gov/pdf/efop/efo23548.pdf
  3. Smith Thill, J. “Diversity and inclusion: one fire chief’s perspective.” Available at:  www.nvfc.org/diversity-and-inclusion-one-fire-chiefs-perspective/?fref=gc&dti=742308985869380
  4. Wilcox, L. “On-boarding fire service recruits can help change the fire service culture.” Available at: www.fireemsleaderpro.org/white-paper-boarding-fire-service-recruits-can-help-change-fire-service-culture/

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