Diversity and Inclusion in the Fire Service

By David Denniston, EISP Director of Risk Management

Twenty-twenty is a year we will tell our kids and grandkids about for years. This great nation of ours saw a pandemic rock our economy and our communities. We witnessed an election that got uglier by the minute and that never seemed to want to end. We also saw civil unrest like many of us had never experienced in our lifetime.

Yes, 2020 is one many of us would like to forget. But with all the bad, we started to see some good things emerge as well. Twenty-twenty is the year that diversity and inclusion became buzz words and were trending on the internet. Many will ask “is that a good thing”? My answer is that it is if we let it be. It is if we use this as a solid foundation to build from and move our organizations forward.

At this point, many of you have read the title of this article and looked at the author’s bio and picture. Here we have a 50-something, middle-class, educated, former Chief, white American male writing an article on diversity and inclusion in the fire service.

What could this “old white guy” possibly teach us about diversity and inclusion? I’d like to think that I know a fair amount on the subject and if you aspire to be a leader in the fire service, you might want to learn a little yourself. For years I have prided myself on being an open-minded individual. My friends and associates vary in political affiliation, religious beliefs, gender, gender identity, race, sexual preference, age bracket, economic status and nationality. I don’t keep an Excel sheet to sort them all out, or frankly even care that I have all the “boxes checked.” I value each and every one of these people the same and they all make me a better person.

I often joke that I am 100% truckie and I will even take an engine person or ambulance driver to dinner now and then. You see, even if you give a truckie long enough they can put the fire out too. Well, technically the fire runs out of fuel and burns out all on its own, but we will save that for another article. I once even saw a Chief manage to put a fire out all by himself, we will save that one too.

So, what is diversity and inclusion? Everyone seems to be talking about it, but do we really understand what it means? I opened the big book of Merriam-Webster and found this: Diversity – the condition of having or being composed of differing elements, the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization. Well that seems to fit here. Do you have a diverse organization? As I travel the country and look at membership pictures plastered all over the walls, what do you think I notice? That’s right, hundreds of pictures of old white guys, just like me.

Many of you are now thinking, “Hey Dave, that is because the population of our town has more white males than any other demographic.” Does it? When is the last time you Googled the demographics of your town? Does the population of your fire department mirror the population of your community? A recent study by Time Well Spent shows that women are more likely to volunteer in their communities than men are. In fact, in 2017-18 40% of the women surveyed had volunteered in their community and only 35% of the men have in the same timeframe.

When we talk about diversity, we are not talking about checking boxes.

What is the percentage of women in your organization? Most of us are screaming for new volunteers and yet we are missing a good percentage of those that are willing to do it. There are similar stats out there for many of the other demographics in our communities as well. I challenge each of you to open the hood and to do a deep dive into your organization. The numbers may be sobering.

When we talk about diversity, we are not talking about checking boxes. Too many organizations will be quick to say “Yes, we have one of ‘those’ and two of ‘those’ and we had a couple of ‘those,’ but it didn’t work out.” Until the day comes that we don’t see color, gender or any other differential in our members, we have a lot of work to do to truly be a diverse organization.

Many of us have gotten better at diversity. Progressive departments have started looking for the “right people” to fill their ranks. I am not trying to say that the fire service is a fit for everyone. To be a successful firefighter, certain traits and abilities are required.

Not everyone has to have the skill sets or ability to be an interior firefighter either. If we don’t have the right people to drive the vehicles, hit the hydrant, direct the traffic, cut the hole in the roof, train us and keep our equipment in service, we aren’t going to be very successful at putting out fires. Start looking for the “right people.” They come in a variety of different sizes, shapes, colors and characteristics. Once we find those right people, we need to learn how to treat them.

We should ask ourselves how many of those people left not because they could not do the job, but rather they left because they did not feel welcome or that they were not allowed to fit in.

This is where the inclusion piece of the equation comes in. We better head back to Merriam-Webster and see what inclusion is all about. Inclusion – the act or practice of including and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability). Looks like they nailed it once again.

The key words here are including and accommodating them. How many times have we brought in a new member that was not in the majority only to watch them leave a short time later? Many of us will blame it on the fact that they just weren’t cut out to belong in our organization.

We should ask ourselves how many of those people left not because they could not do the job, but rather they left because they did not feel welcome or that they were not allowed to fit in.

Diversity is a fact. What are the demographics of your department? Inclusion is an act. Do we foster an environment where everyone given the proper skills, tools and attitudes can thrive?

In too many of our organizations, these individuals are not even given the chance to survive, let alone thrive as a member. Each department must ask themselves what they do to allow every individual to fit in and be part of the team. Ask yourself the following questions. If I were the only (fill in the blank) in this department, would I feel welcome? If I were that person, would I feel like my opinion mattered? If I were in their shoes, would I feel like could aspire to be anything that I wanted in the future? Would I feel like my department members trusted me and could I trust them? If you cannot honestly and emphatically answer yes to each of these questions, we have more work to do.

Fire departments have been challenged both by their community members, and by state and federal agencies, on their practices towards diversity and inclusion. Some of the organizations have been accused of dealing with both their membership and community members based on some form of discrimination.

Your organization can not afford to be the target of one of these accusations. Those charges become a drain both financially and emotionally on a department quickly.

As we enter the new year, let’s use it as our opportunity to become both a better collective fire service and better individuals. I look forward to sharing more information on this topic as we move forward together. I also welcome your questions, thoughts and comments. Feel free to email me at ddenniston@mcneilandcompany.com. Happy New Year, my friends. Together, we can make it all it can be.

David Denniston is the Director of Risk Management with Emergency Services Insurance Program by McNeil and Company. Dave has 30-plus years in the fire service and is Past Chief and current President of the Cortlandville Fire Department. He serves as a Fire Commissioner in the Virgil Fire District and as Regional Director for the Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York. He also serves as a Deputy Fire Coordinator in Cortland County. Dave speaks at trade shows and conferences across the U.S. and recently began a webinar series called “Keeping It Real,” where he leads a panel discussion on current issues and opportunities in the fire service.