When Don Horton joined the Richmond (Va.) Fire Department in 1980, the agency was implementing a federally mandated diversity-driven recruitment process. Nevertheless, when Horton hit the ground, he met people who were unhappy about minority hires.
"It wasn't easy at the time," he said. "You had to align yourself with people and stay focused."
Not much has changed over the ensuing three decades. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics' 2010 jobs report indicated that there are about 301,000 firefighters nationwide. Of these, 9.6% are Hispanic, 6.4% are African-American, 0.5% are Asian and 3.6% are women. That means that approximately 80% of U.S. firefighters are white males — and that diversity still needs to be addressed in the fire service.
Clearly, minorities have a small representation in the fire service. Regarding women, the 2008 Report Card on Women in Firefighting — based on 2000 census data, and the only recent report on the topic — found that firefighting was in the lowest 11% of all occupations in terms of female employees. The same report found that among the 291 metropolitan areas at the time, 51.2% had no paid female firefighters.
Yet diversity is an absolute necessity for any public or private organization trying to be competitive in today's multicultural world, said Jona Olsson, the founder and director of Cultural Bridges to Justice, a national training consortium. Olsson also is fire chief of the Latir Volunteer Fire Department in Questa, N.M.
Olsson believes an increase in equality and diversity can be beneficial to a company or organization's profitability and is a crucial tool for sustained market success in a society with diverse ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomics, religions and generations.
"Corporate America has learned over the years that having a diverse work force increases their bottom line," Olsson said. "The fire service has a different bottom line — that's our mission — and I firmly believe diversifying our work force will strengthen our bottom line."
U.S. communities once were monocultural, but that largely is no longer the case, Olsson said. At the same time, fire departments' original mission of fighting fires has morphed into an all-hazards response, which means more interaction with the public.
"Today, we are responding to more calls that interact with the public, whether it is an EMS call or a car crash, or prevention and safety education," she said. "These calls [require] more interpersonal skills and cultural competence."
Departments need to reflect the diversity of society to best serve constituents and provide high-quality service, Olsson said. They also need to end the culture of intimidation that often develops when diverse personnel are added to a work force.
The fire service is not alone in this regard. Indeed, harassing someone who may be seen as a threat because of their background simply is a microcosm of the broader society, Olsson said.
"If any group in society is not seen as valuable or capable, they are not going to be welcomed into the monoculture that exists," she said.
Olsson has a strong belief that firefighters can't perform at their best when they constantly are second-guessed, doubted, tokenized or harassed because of their uniqueness.
"Unfortunately that's the experience of many women, people of color and firefighters that are lesbian, gay or transsexual," she said. "Every day, they show up for work and [being unwelcomed] does not serve them and does not serve our fire service."
Chiefs must ensure every member can perform at their best and be successful.
"That means we have to do our best to dismantle any barriers to full participation," Olsson said.