Members of the fire service are natural-born problem solvers. They see a problem and they want to solve it – quickly. With heightened conversations surrounding racial inequity taking place across all levels of society, and particularly in public spaces, it’s important to look at inequity as an issue within the firehouse: Is this a fire service problem? If it is, what can and should leaders do to ensure equity and fairness across the board?
Some might say, “Well, what can we do about a greater societal issue? We’re just the fire department.” Solving inequity problems within our own organization not only better serves our personnel and our communities but can have a ripple effect throughout society. As Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder of the Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department explains, “You can solve it in your little world of the firehouse. There are certain things you can do in your firehouse, your shift, with your crew.”
Why Is Racial Inequity a Fire Service Concern?
Fire departments are a snapshot of the surrounding society and community – or at least they should be. Inequities in the community inadvertently lead to inequities in the fire service, and since we know this, it’s important to pay attention and act accordingly. Gaining an understanding of these inequities impacts the way we learn, the way we grow and how we relate to one another.
The fire service “is a melting pot – it’s where a lot of opinions and perspectives on politics, on race relations end up at the kitchen table,” Chief John Butler from Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue explains. Diversity of thought and experiences is a great, productive and necessary element of successful organizations, but it can lead to problems if not handled with care and respect. Chief Butler shares, “Diversity of thought, how we learn about each other and different cultures…is always supposed to be a good thing. In recent years, we’ve become so divisive that differences can stick out in a negative way.”
Believing the community only wants firefighters to “throw water on the fire” and provide emergency medical services is shortsighted. The community wants to feel valued, to see themselves in their first responders and to relate to those who are serving them. This can effectively take place when the fire department is an accurate reflection of the community. It falls to leaders and members to ensure equity is created within the fire service, solving problems where they can, before demonstrating and evidencing it to the community.
When we “know and understand” the situations of our citizens, we can implement strategies to reduce inequities and better serve our community.
“It is all of our responsibilities to prevent these inequities from happening in the future,” Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins says. “And we do that by learning from the past.” We must be aware of what is in our sphere of control, what we can do to ensure we are accurately and adequately reflecting and serving our communities, and what our fire department can look like if we do so. Chief Scoggins outlines, “We have to be open to examining our systems, our processes, our procedures, our practices in all of our organizations…Every leader in the fire service owns that.” Do you own that?
How Can Leaders in the Fire Service Address Racial Inequities?
Listen: Leaders in the fire service would be naïve to think the difficult conversations so prevalent in our communities are not also taking place in the firehouse. Leaders and members alike must be open to honest discussions about the inequities that exist. These conversations require a desire to understand the situation from another’s perspective, a willingness to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” Every uncomfortable conversation must begin from a place of mutual respect and shared human dignity. When leaders foster, encourage and participate in these types of conversations, it demonstrates a level of care for all personnel and a desire for an open line of communication to better understand one another. If we approach these difficult discussions not as a debate, but with sincerity, humility and grace, we can grow as brothers and sisters in the fire service.
Look: Out of these conversations, and potentially a more formal deep-dive into policies, procedures and systems, leaders should have their eyes open to ways inequities may be perpetuated within their department, station or crew. Gaining a clear-eyed understanding of what contributes to inequity within your department can help you develop a plan to remove undue obstacles and create an overall more inclusive and diverse workplace.
Learn: Ultimately, it comes back to the community. As members of and leaders in the fire service, it is important to take the time to understand and be a part of the community. Awareness of data regarding your city, town or community is crucial, particularly when it comes to socioeconomic data. “Socioeconomics are drivers for everything in our society, especially as it pertains to local government,” Hartford (CT) Fire Chief Reginald Freeman explains. When we “know and understand” the situations of our citizens, we can implement strategies to reduce inequities and better serve our community. As we work to understand those we serve and eliminate inequities within the fire department, our efforts can extend into society around us.
Racial inequities exist – we must pay attention and be cognizant of how we as leaders in the fire service can bring attention and respond appropriately. To learn more about addressing racial inequities in the fire service, including tangible examples of how various fire chiefs have been successful in moving forward, check out our on-demand webinar, “We Don’t Have a Race Problem.” Confronting Racial Inequity in the Fire Service.