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Diversity: the Fire Service Must Define this Issue before We Can Solve It

There has been a lot of controversy and discussion about diversity in the fire service. Some fire service authors have indicated that we have too much diversity; others that we don’t have enough diversity; and still other that there is room for all at the table.

And, an article in the February 2010 issue of Fire Engineering, "Less Diversity Is Needed in the Fire Service," states that we need to be color blind and not consider diversity as a factor in the fire station. With all of these divergent positions on diversity, what should we be striving for?

Diversity is defined in Webster’s (1) as the following: the condition of being diverse: Variety; especially: the inclusion of diverse people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization (i.e.,) programs intended to promote diversity in schools.

I’m supposedly a smart person, but I have no idea of what that means and it doesn’t fully explain diversity. I looked to other sources from the academic world for clarification. ”When people think about inclusion and diversity, people think of race immediately. Then they may think of gender, but there really are eight dimensions of diversity,” said Hazel Pegues, executive director of Diversity Focus in Cedar Rapids. (2) Those eight dimensions are race, culture, ethnicity, age, religion, social economic status, disabilities, and sexual orientation or lifestyle. The experts consulted defined diversity broadly. By including everybody as part of the diversity that should be valued, we recognize that all employees bring their differences, including group-identity differences, to the workplace. A broad definition moves diversity issues beyond an "us-vs.-them" struggle to a focus on using diversity to accomplish both individual and organizational goals.

An article resulting from a University of Illinois study called “Work in Progress” at the University of Illinois by Rose Mary Wentling (3) indicates that organizations that seek to correct a company bias against a particular group may define diversity more narrowly, according to their specific needs. Others argue that attempts to cover all differences may weaken current efforts to reduce racism and sexism in our society. No single definition can capture the broad range of differences which the concept of diversity includes, the evolutionary nature of the process it represents, and the far-reaching impact it has on individuals and organizations.

A 2000 article from the Magazine Publishers Association related to Defining Diversity (4) states:
In its broadest context, diversity is defined as ‘recognizing, appreciating, valuing, and utilizing the unique talents and contributions of all individuals’ regardless of age, career experience, color, communication style, culture, disability, educational level or background, employee status, ethnicity, family status, function, gender, language, management style, marital status, national origin, organizational level, parental status, physical appearance, race, regional origin, religion, sexual orientation, thinking style, speed of learning and comprehension, etc.

More narrowly defined and organizationally focused, diversity is a “collective mixture characterized by differences and similarities that are applied in pursuit of organizational objectives.” It is the process of planning for, organizing, directing, and supporting these collective mixtures in a way that adds a measurable difference to organizational performance, by which diversity is managed.

Although organizations tend to believe that diversity in the workplace is important, only 30 percent have an agreed definition of "diversity," according to a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) report. 5 The 2007 State of Workplace Diversity Management Report is based on a yearlong study on the status of diversity in the workplace conducted in partnership with the American Institute for Managing Diversity Inc. The survey included 993 human resource professionals and 330 diversity practitioners from a range of organizations, including publicly and privately owned companies, non-profits, and the education sector.

Although the report states that there is evidence of more awareness of diversity in a general sense, managing diversity continues to be a challenge. Specifically, among other hurdles to diversity management, survey respondents emphasized that the field:
• is not well-defined or understood
• focuses too much on compliance, and
• places too much emphasis on ethnicity and/or gender.

Finally (as there are thousands of articles on this topic), an article by Kevin Whitelaw, "Defining Diversity: Beyond Race And Gender," (6) written in January 2010, indicates that just about every medium or large U.S. company talks about its dedication to diversity, whether in a prominent section of its Web site or in its corporate mission statement. But, the definition of what, exactly, these firms mean by diversity is often vague. Only 30 percent of human resources professionals say that their company even has an official definition of diversity, according to a 2007 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Although diversity has traditionally referred to categories like race and gender, companies and diversity experts are increasingly considering a wide range of factors from age and sexual preference to disabilities and even weight.

Where does that leave the fire service? We are left in limbo if no one can clearly articulate the definition of diversity--how we can approach it and “solve” the issues presented in this challenge.

Fire Engineering’s Editor in Chief Bobby Halton’s Editor’s Opinion in the February 2010 issue, “We Have a Seat for Everyone at the Table,” indicates that we need to look broadly at the issue of diversity. Although there are many opinions on what diversity may look like, we need to accept people for what they are and the value they bring to the organization. If qualified, candidates have a right to be a firefighter, and there is plenty of room for all people. All people are what make the fire service great.

Halton summarizes this issue by stating succinctly: The fire service must be a profession where all have equal access to opportunity and can work without threat. How we choose to manage inclusion matters. Only more division and exclusion will result if we unwisely choose to use weapons and threats. There are better ways, smarter methods. I will not be a bystander any longer. I was raised better. ‘There is a seat at our table for everyone who is hungry,' my Mom used to say. There are no innocent bystanders in the fire service, just those who choose to do the right thing and those who don’t.” My Irish Catholic mother used to say the same thing, and that’s how I live my life.

In his September 1, 2009, Fire Engineering article “A Matter of National Security,” Joseph Muhammad looks at the Ricci v. DeStefano court decisions. Mr. Mohammad indicates the following: The International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters (IABPFF) has monitored discrimination in hiring, job assignments, and promotions since our inception in 1970. Although this is not all encompassing of our core values, we have an extensive history of data indicating these components of conflict. Our findings to this dilemma also lead to consequent lawsuits, thus too often producing a behavior of bigotry, racial slurs, harassment, and demeaning treatment in the firehouse. Disparity in fire personnel or disparity in community fire protection cannot be tolerated. This is the reason the IABPFF supported the City of New Haven regarding the Frank Ricci, et al., v. John DeStefano, et al. case presented before the Supreme Court. That is the reason we contend, whether it is EMS or DHS, diversity is a sign of strength for our country and is a matter of all our security. As shown through the experience of safety force departments throughout the country and the military, diverse organizations make better decisions, in no small part because they have the benefit of many different viewpoints at decision-making levels. They are also more cohesive and respond better to the needs of the communities they serve, being better able to effectively communicate with the diverse neighborhoods in which they operate. The fire service’s relationship of trust with its communities is the critical element of fulfilling its mission and operating successfully.

Mr. Muhammad’s summary states: Some people fear change is contagious, like an epidemic with no known cure. They are also afraid of catching it. The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation brings everyone together annually as a result of line-of-duty deaths. Why? Because fire, disaster, and death are nondiscriminatory. The U.S. Supreme Court decision has given us the opportunity to illuminate the disparity that exists and to monitor who is willing to be just as nondiscriminatory as fire, disaster, and death.

Mr. Muhammad’s commentary indicates that death is nondiscriminatory and affects us all equally. It appears to take the highest courts in this country to define diversity and create case law to set the standard for us to follow.

An October 1, 2008, article by John J. McNeil in Fire Engineering entitled "Diversity in the Fire Service: A Problem or a Solution?" discusses how diversity considerations can range from cultural (nationality, religion, and language) to subcultural (age, gender, and community) to individual (personal traits and learning styles). Perspectives regarding the impact of diversity in the fire service vary from causing adversity and ineffectiveness in the organization to providing a position of strength and success through collective intelligence. No matter what your perspective may be on diversity, it is an issue that can evoke emotions.

In his summary, McNeil indicates that leaders face challenges when introducing or addressing diversity, but their success is critical to the success of the organization. The strength of an organization rests in its greatest resource—its people. Leadership cannot accomplish any of the organizational goals without the employees’ uniting to accomplish the work. The more talent, skills, perspectives, insight, knowledge, and abilities acquired through diversity, the stronger and more effective and competitive the organization will be. In our multicultural society, positively integrating this necessary diverse workforce and meeting the inherent challenges are the duties of leadership.

Finally, Kelly B. Jernigan in her article in the February 2010 edition of Fire Engineering Magazine indicates, “We need less diversity in the fire service.” Yes, she said it--less diversity. She goes on to explain that in her mind there are two types of people in the fire service—there are firefighters and there are people who work for the fire department. This is an interesting perspective, but it does not really address the issue of diversity and how fire departments should approach this issue. In Jernigan’s world if we were all “firefighters,” then there would be no problems. From a firefighter’s and chief officer’s perspective, I am sure that this would be our nirvana. In her summary, Kelly opines, “So next time you’re thinking of becoming a member of an ethnic or gender-specific organization so you can get help with screaming, 'I didn’t get promoted because of my color, gender, ethnicity, or religion,' think about what class you represent. Are you a firefighter, or do you just work for the fire department?”

If we all looked the same, this might not be an issue. But in the real world of different cultures, biases, community personalities, race, age, gender and all of the issues that constitute a diverse society, we need to tackle this issue head on.

Articles in the United States Constitution have attempted to bring to our society the “right balance” of harmony. We protect race, gender, pregnant employees, and those who leave their jobs to serve in the military, those over 40 years old, same-sex couples, transgender individuals, ethnic minorities, and a whole bunch of other legislatively protected classes. It appears that we are a nation of rule breakers, since every day we see violations of these protections. The courts have certainly weighed in to determine the right method of defining diversity and to right the wrongs perpetrated on all protected classes with case law and monetary awards that are only enriching the aggrieved and their attorneys and leaving no stone unturned. The result is that everybody suffers from these issues. Jobs are lost, employees are terminated, self-esteem is destroyed, and fire departments suffer deep psychological wounds that may take years to overcome.

Where does this leave us? I am not here to offer my rules for how to treat each other, but Bobby Halton’s February Editor’s Opinion hit the nail on the head. There is room at the table.

Regardless of how much legislation or court actions attempt to force us to treat each other right, it is up to us and our own personal behavior, attitudes, and biases to treat each other as WE want to be treated. We must step up to the plate and embrace the diverse nature of our profession. Sometimes we get bonehead fire chiefs, firefighters, employees, or elected officials that make this difficult, but as individuals we can set the example and embrace diversity no matter how it’s defined.

Even though you do not know how to define it, you need to live the principles of doing no harm to our fellow brothers and sister firefighters. If you don’t, the courts will step in, and you will not like the decision or the costs.

1. Webster’s Internet Dictionary.
3. Rose Mary Wentling is an associate professor of human resource development in the Department of Human Resource Education at the University of Illinois.
6. Defining Diversity: Beyond Race and Gender by Kevin Whitelaw.

By M2 Resource Group, Inc
EMS & Fire Subject Matter Expert Witness; Litigation Support; Psychological Testing & Counseling
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John K. Murphy and Beth L. Murphy
Mr. Murphy retired as a deputy fire chief after 32 years of service; is a practicing attorney, whose focus is on employment practices liability, training safety, employment policy and practices, forensic evaluation on fire operations, internal investigations, and consulting on risk management for private and public entities.

Ms. Murphy retired as a firefighter after 12 years of service to pursue and complete her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She is a practicing clinician with a focus on workplace stress, PTSD, cancer survivors and TBI. Her population focus is on police and fire agencies, as well as military personnel.

Copyright M2 Resource Group, Inc

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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