How your department can embrace diversity

By Jason Zigmont

A lot of organizations in fire and EMS talk about embracing diversity but few do it in the manner of a unique program in a Connecticut city.

For more than five years, Career Resources, Inc., in Bridgeport has been teaching disenfranchised youth aged 18-21 to become EMS professionals. The program is targeted at youth who have various barriers to learning including low-income level, lack of a high school diploma, single parents, and reading and math deficiencies.

Even though most research says these students shouldn't succeed, the program — funded courtesy of a Workforce Investment Act (WIA) grant managed by the local workforce investment board, The Workplace, Inc., — continues to have remarkable success. This success can and should be replicated in other communities.

Students are taken through a progression of certifications so that they can reach their full potential. Although there have been many changes to it over the years, the core is an intensive, daytime program which includes CPR, first responder certification, EMT certification and workforce readiness programs. Check out the video that accompanies this article — and an additional clip on FlashoverTV — where the students themselves provide a bit of flavor of the program.

Students first work on their reading and math skills before entering the EMS program. Then they are taught, and tested, at the first responder (EMR) level.

The EMR training allows them to "get their feet wet" in EMS, and prepares them for the EMT program. Upon successful completion of the first responder training, high performing students can enter the EMT program.

Not all students complete the EMT training as some choose to take the first responder certification to a fire, police or other public safety agency rather than EMS. To meet the needs of the students, the EMS program overall has been expanded extensively.

Within the course there is a focus on professionalism and customer service, with all students being given uniforms (including a tie). Students are expected to be professional at all times — this includes keeping their uniforms neat and pressed, showing up to class on time, completing all work and watching their language (no slang or swearing).

Students are assigned "squads" in which they work and are responsible to. When students are not professional, they are assigned "sheets" (think grammar school; writing out sheets of vocabulary or algorithms) as a squad, so the squad rises and falls together.

Professionalism is a very difficult topic to teach, but when it is embedded within the course, you can see some amazing changes in both student behavior and grades.
The format of the class has changed and adapted over the years. Texts and workbooks are specifically chosen for reading comprehension levels and the number of classroom hours has doubled. Each class consists of a rotating schedule between lecture, practicals and facilitated study time:

A sample schedule is:

  • 8:30-9:30 Lecture
  • 9:30-9:45 Break
  • 9:45-10:30 Facilitated Study
  • 10:30-11:30 Lecture
  • 11:30-12:15 Lunch
  • 12:15-1:30 Practicals
  • 1:30-2:30 Facilitated Study
  • 2:30-3:30 Lecture

Additional time is taken to help students with study, test taking and reading skills. As most of these students read at the 8th grade level, and many speak English as a second language, vocabulary can be very difficult.

Students make flash cards, review with their squads, and have a teacher present and active during all facilitated study sessions. Test-taking strategies are key for those with reading comprehension issues or who went to school outside the United States; multiple choice exams can be particularly difficult for them.

A lot of time and effort is put into each student. These young people often failed or were pushed out of high school and may or may not have gotten a GED. They are disenfranchised by definition.

They have multiple barriers to learning including basic needs such as housing, food, childcare and other social issues. Almost every class has an expectant mom in it.

Most of these students came from the streets, and have to overcome adversity just to come to class each day. They need time to learn how to learn again and need to realize that they can have a career in public safety rather than just "getting a job."

Motivation and motivating students can be a particular challenge. As the program is completely paid for by a federal grant, students do not have to pay for the course. The flipside of this is if they do not have their own money invested in the course, they need to be convinced that the course is for their own benefit and to take advantage of the opportunities.

Often time is spent working with the students to get them to make a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain. This includes educating them on potential careers, benefits to them and their family, and overall just selling them on the simple concept of working toward a better future.

The pass rate for this course varies, but many more students pass EMR than the EMT course. Much of the research on getting students to pass the National Registry EMT test states that they are most likely to pass if they are white, college-educated males.

Even though none of the students who take the EMT course are white, college-educated males, on average 66 percent of students become an EMT. Students are encouraged to volunteer for a minimum of six months before employment to gain further experience.

Graduates of the program can now be found in dispatch centers, fire departments, EMS agencies, police departments and all areas of public safety.

If it sounds like I am impressed and proud of the program, it is because I am. I will admit I am biased — I created the program design five years ago. I do not currently teach it, but still love seeing the students be successful and I am happy to see the program continue to grow and remain strong.

I walked into a local hospital recently and saw a student who I had taught in this program four years prior. At the time he was a new dad, unemployed, and hustling for cash to pay his bills. Now he has a great job working at a major hospital, has great benefits and is going on to an RN program. He is providing for his family, and doing the best he can for both himself and his family. What more could you ask for?

The patch to the right was created by the first class that is a great show of pride in the program.

It states, simply, "Out da hood, Into EMS" and has a 'project building' merged with a star of life. They created the patch on their own, and included another saying that I used in the course: "Pressure Makes Diamonds."

I warned the students that the course would be hard and I would put the pressure on them. Under pressure, they would either crack or turn into diamonds. While some cracked, the vast majority I am proud to say are now diamonds, helping themselves by helping others.

  1. Tags
  2. Volunteer

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2023 FireRescue1. All rights reserved.