Diversity and Inclusion – One Fire Chief’s Perspective

By Fire Chief J. Thill

It has been more than 27 years since I joined the fire service. As a third generation firefighter − my father and grandfather both served as volunteers in a small town in Pennsylvania − I have seen many changes. My own career has included paid-on-call and full-time positions/ranks in three different departments (two at the same time) and most recently, holding the position of full-time fire chief for the past 9 years.

Growing up in our small town, I played baseball and football at the local park. Since it was a small town, the teams were made up of whoever was available. Back in those days “diversity and inclusion” (D&I) were never discussed, but they also never seemed to be an issue. Your race, religion, gender, etc. didn’t matter. If you could play even a little bit of ball, you were on the team. When everyone is young and carefree, most kids don’t ever seem to notice differences such as gender and most are colorblind. I am not sure exactly when things change, but something seems to happen as we get older. We are supposed to be wiser and more mature, yet some people seem to grow apart and, unfortunately, become more divided.

Growing up in and working with volunteer fire families, I have been around firefighters all of my life – as a grandchild, child, firefighter, and now as a chief. I love the fire service, which is why I pour my heart and soul into it and give back as much as I can. That is why I got involved in training almost as soon as I joined a department and also why I get involved with fire service organizations. The fire service has given me much in my many decades of existence – a career, confidence, a pastime, an education, a very big family with more brothers and sisters than I could ever dream of wanting, etc. But, being in the fire service has, at times, also taken its toll. You see, the J. in my name above stands for Judy and yes, I am a female in the fire service.

I could get into great detail about some of the disrespectful, inappropriate, and yes, illegal actions I have had to endure in almost three decades of working in the fire service, but I won’t. First, there is some information that will simply remain between me, the males involved, and a couple of chiefs I reported the issues to. Second, although I know the illegal behavior is still happening nationally and throughout our state (I have counseled women in other departments), I am not going to get into that part as there are already excellent articles available for that. I believe most people understand the really obvious actions that are very inappropriate and/or illegal, and if they don’t, this article would make no difference to them.

Instead, I want to focus on more subtle situations. My hope is that by offering some personal examples, I might get more people thinking about how all of those little things can add up to make a department feel less accepting. If some people don’t feel welcome, your retention is going to suffer and you may lose good personnel. Also, if there are certain groups of people who are not made to feel welcome in your department, your pool of candidates is smaller which obviously hurts your recruitment efforts. Because I am a white female, that is the experience I can draw from. But for some of these examples, you can possibly exchange race, religion, or sexual orientation in place of gender.

Watch Your Assumptions

When I was first named as the new full-time chief of my department in 2007, it was only a month before the annual state fire chiefs’ conference. I had done a bit of training throughout our state, so a lot of people attending the conference knew me and stopped to offer their congratulations. I took my two assistant chiefs with me to this conference and each time someone stopped to congratulate me, I introduced those assistant chiefs to that person. Later at the conference, some of those same chief officers who congratulated me sought out my assistant chiefs and asked, “So what is it like working for a female fire chief?” Fortunately, one of the assistant chiefs has a quick wit. His reply was, “Once we (the male officers) got past having to carry purses, it was just like working for a male fire chief.” A little humorous, but a little sad that these questions were coming from some of the state’s fire service leaders.

One could brush it off as “just a stupid comment,” but that comment had to come from some belief that a female fire chief is markedly different from a male one. D&I need to start at the top. If the chiefs don’t get it, can their departments really change to be fully inclusive?

Public Perception

We had a decent sized brush fire in our city two years ago. I was on scene first, did my size up, and gave directions to incoming units. I then went to talk to the owner to find out what happened. I found out the owner tried to burn off some dead grass in a field, even though he had no permit and we were under a burning ban because of the dry weather and high winds. After I got done telling him how “un-smart” that was and how it could have gotten much worse, I walked away to talk to my crews. About 10 minutes later, the owner walked up to one of my (male) officers on scene and said, “You look like the guy in charge here” to which the fire officer said – “No that would be the chief there who is in charge” and pointed to me. The owner took one look at me and replied “Who, the female?”

Educating the public on D&I in the fire service can be a win-win. First, by letting the public know and showing that you are an inclusive fire department, you may significantly broaden your pool of applicants. You don’t have to use terms like Diversity and Inclusion or give the full EEOC definition. You don’t have to make a big deal out of the fact that you are willing to hire women or other specific groups, but it can be rolled into a simple statement like the following: We are looking for people from all backgrounds who are interested in volunteering and can do the job. You can be a stay at home mom or dad, a factory worker, nurse, teacher, mechanic, student, etc. When you make statements that are inclusive and back them up with actions or printed material that reinforce those words, it drives the point home even further. If you have printed material, use people with more diverse looks. The NVFC’s Make Me A Firefighter program has that kind of printed material available to use for free.

Building a Diverse Team

Early in my career, I was hired as a captain and eventually rose to deputy chief in a very large suburban POC department. We had about 96 members, and the chief and I were the only full-time operations personnel. After being on the department for nine years, I was at a training one day and realized we had a lot of women on the department, so I started counting. At that time, out of our 96 firefighters, 17 of us were women. That was a huge “ah-ha moment” so I tried to think of how we got to that many women. I do suspect that a lot of it had to do with the demographics of that community, and there was probably some dumb luck in there as well. But I do believe there were two specific contributing factors and both would hold up today.

First, the more women we got on the department, the more the public saw those female firefighters working at emergency scenes, attending fire department events in the community, etc. It made the department more approachable to women who saw us and it also sparked their interest. If all they had seen were men, they might not have ever gotten the idea they could do it too or may not have felt that comfortable coming over to the group to start talking. When people see others like themselves (whether female, of a different race, etc.) working at an emergency, they are more likely to picture themselves doing the same thing.

Second, as the deputy chief, if anyone called to inquire about being a firefighter, they got forwarded to me to answer questions. After the conversations got going, women would open up and start asking questions about the physical demands, how females were treated, etc. They knew that by talking to another female, they were getting honest answers, not some hype.

Most of what the public hears about regarding diversity in the fire service comes from what they see on the news or read in the paper. What do the stories usually focus on? Often it is someone suing a fire department or city for harassment or discrimination. With that, a female or someone else with a diverse background may think that the harassment and discrimination goes on in just about every department, so why even take a chance? For some people, if you don’t tell and show them in some way that you are inclusive, they may never know.

Showing the public you are inclusive needs to be ongoing. As the chief in my community for almost nine years now, I have had my firefighters approached by residents about the “chief’s wife driving the chief’s vehicle all over the city and what a waste of taxpayer dollars that is.” Funny yes, but a subtle way of telling me that I am not doing the best job I can in educating the public about diversity and inclusion.

How are women treated in your department? How about female recruits going through training or females who show up for a recruitment expo? One thing to consider – and this may sound a little sexist – is that most men have been brought up teething on power tools. Many women have not. I have seen male instructors skim through starting and operating tools. I saw one recruit instructor where he held up a chainsaw and did a straw poll by saying, “Who all knows how to start a chainsaw, or maybe I should ask who doesn’t know how to start a chainsaw?” He never even waited for the answer and just moved on. Don’t skim over things, and if someone says “Hey, I never started one before,” don’t make that recruit feel stupid because they were never taught that as a kid.

Appreciating Differences

Another thing to consider is that a woman’s technique may be different than a man’s. For example, how I raise a 35 foot ladder is different from most men. I can raise a ladder without issue and do it just as fast as a man, I just use a different technique. Just like there are two ways to put on a SCBA – over the head or arm through and around – there are good qualified and safe techniques that women (and smaller males) can use to do things. However, if you don’t have women who have developed a different technique to show other women who are trying to learn the skill, all they have to go on is how the men do it, which may be awkward or not as fast or efficient for that female. Then you have people pointing and saying “see, she can’t do it.”

Dealing with Vendors

Vendors are always around firefighters – at the fire stations, conferences, schools, etc. For me, most of the local ones are pretty good because they know who I am and respect my position. However, when I go to a national conference, all bets are off. One day, I waited in a line with another female chief officer to speak with a vendor. There were probably 40 people in line and we were the only two women. When, after about 15 minutes, we finally made our way to the front of the line, the vendor never even acknowledged us. He looked right around us and said, “Gentlemen, how can I help you” to the two men behind us.

I have attended many national conferences with male officers from my departments. When I walk up to a vendor with one or more male officers, the assumption by the vendor often seems to be that I am the “little woman” just hanging out at the expo with “my man.” If I am by myself, some vendors will not even look at me as I try and get their attention, let alone shake my hand. I could be the one to extend my hand for a handshake and they look away.

Remember my AC with the quick wit? Having worked with me since I started as chief, he has seen how vendors and others treat me. We could both walk up to a vendor together and, even if I make eye contact and start to extend my hand, some vendors totally ignore me and go into their pitch right away – talking directly to my assistant chief. The AC will just let the vendor go through the entire sales pitch while I listen and walk along. When the vendor is done and asks, “So what do you think?”, the AC will say something like “well I need to ask the chief here.” At which point, the vendor stumbles all over himself apologizing to me once he realizes he just blew off the person with the purchasing authority.

In my time as chief, I have been fortunate to have purchased two full sized engines, a mini-pumper, and a 75-foot ladder. We are looking at building and equipping a third station, so I come with a lot of potential buying power. However, many vendors don’t understand or see my potential when I approach. All they see is I am a woman and they immediately go into an assumption that I am a spouse or significant other of some male attending the conference.

Be Aware

How many of you have witnessed something like that in the past − very subtle actions that are either discriminatory, exclude someone, or just make for a slightly uncomfortable situation? Most people may not even notice unless it has been pointed out to them. Also, unless it is happening to you, you probably don’t realize what is going on around you. Maybe you should start observing. Watch your vendors and your firefighters. See how they interact with people of all backgrounds, especially those who might not look like the rest of the firefighters, but are potential recruits. Watch for those subtle things.

I am sure by now there are a few of you thinking that I’m just too sensitive. It isn’t a matter of being sensitive – it is about trying to help people understand when they could be perceived as being “exclusionary.” Does it bother me when I am excluded? Yes, because it shows disrespect for my contributions to the fire service. Do I make a big deal out of it? No. I try and use humor and subtle actions to get the point across. I understand that many people don’t even realize they are being exclusionary or disrespectful. But if they are and no one points it out, they will never know their actions or words may be perceived as exclusionary and their behavior will never change.

For those of you who admit that you have witnessed something like I have described, how many of you have actually stepped in and said or done something about it? If a woman is treated disrespectfully and a woman points it out, many men will just roll their eyes. BUT, if a woman is treated disrespectfully, and a MAN steps in to point it out, other men will actually stand up and take notice. It is sad that it has to come to that. Bottom line is, if men don’t help educate and correct other men when they are being exclusionary or treating a female disrespectfully, then this same conversation is going to be taking place another 30 years down the road.

If you have never noticed anything like that, talk to any females in your department. Watch how they are treated by others, including the public. You might just be surprised to see they are often not treated as respectfully as the males.

Everyone Deserves a Chance

A few years ago, I was asked by another department in the state to talk to their firefighters as they were going to be bringing on their first female firefighter. I spoke for about 20 minutes and then took questions. The biggest piece of advice I gave them was to “give her a chance” and not just assume she is going to fail. The second most important piece of advice I gave them was that, if for some odd reason this first female did not work out, don’t start assuming that all women in the future will not work out. Give the next female who can do the job a chance. I then went on to explain that I assumed, in this department’s 150-year history, that there have been some men who did a lousy job and did not work out. But, in looking around the room, they obviously thought it was OK to continue to hire more men.

A Culture of Inclusion

As I stated at the beginning, fire personnel need to make their departments welcoming. While they may have all the policies and procedures in place to take care of the overt and illegal behavior, what about the subtle instances like I mentioned above? Are you looking for those? When you see them, are you doing something about it? If you aren’t educating your public and department or making corrections, then how can you expect anything to change?

One piece that is often overlooked are the wives and female significant others. How do they treat females who are already on the department or those trying join? There are times they can be more exclusionary than any male. They don’t want their man working with a woman! When I first started 27 years ago, after my probation ended, it was time for the firefighters to vote you in or out. There were two other women in my recruit class. A group of wives explained to us that they had told their husbands to vote us off because they thought there were enough women on the department! Thank goodness their husbands didn’t listen. Obviously that was a long time ago, but I would bet something similar is going on somewhere in some department, even today.

Like the situations I described with the vendors, for most people, especially your firefighters, all that is needed is a little nudge. That nudge might be as simple as explaining that something they did/said could be perceived as disrespectful or exclusionary and providing some basic information that you want to be welcoming to everyone. I realize subtleness doesn’t work on everyone. Some may need the direct approach, others may almost need to be hit over the head to get it to sink in, and more just won’t get it or won’t care. I am not writing this for that last group. I am writing this for the majority of the people – those who do care but just never realized.

D&I Directly Impacts R&R

Volunteer departments are clamoring for recruits. To get the biggest pool of candidates, you need to make everyone, with every kind of background, feel welcome. If people don’t feel welcome, they don’t stay on the department and they won’t want to join your department. That isn’t even a diversity or inclusion issue – that is just good leadership! And don’t think the word doesn’t get around. If people are quitting because they don’t feel welcome, then others are going to hear that and won’t even bother applying. Just like anything leaders deal with, such as promoting a good safety culture in your organization, the leaders of the department have to be on board with the subject and set the tone for all members. If leaders don’t get it, aren’t willing to learn it, or don’t correct it when they see it, things will never change.

Yes, I have dealt with a lot of the subtle as well as the blatant disrespectful behavior, but know I am stronger for it and am inwardly proud of where I got to in my career in spite of some of the things I endured. But I also think back – why should I, or any person, have to go through any of that, just because they simply want to serve their community? If they can do the job, why should it matter if they are a female, have a different sexual orientation, or if their skin is a different color? Things HAVE gotten better in the last 27 years as I see women being accepted much more easily. Thank goodness many of them will never have to go through some of the terrible behavior of the past, but unfortunately, we still have a long way to go.

The human population is very diverse. When we join a fire department, we also take an oath (written or implied) that we will help anyone in trouble. Does it matter if it is a house belonging to a female, a person of color, or anyone with a diverse background? No! So why should it matter whether the people responding to the call have many different, diverse backgrounds? It is these differences that make us who we are and help create the strongest TEAM possible for our fire departments. We are all so much better off if we simply respect and appreciate those facts.

Judy-ThillChief Judy Smith Thill has more than 35 years in private and public safety, which includes 27 years in the fire service as well as 12 years as a safety and health professional in private industry. Serving as Fire Chief since 2007 for the City of Inver Grove Heights, MN, she is responsible for 65 paid-on-call firefighters who protect 35,000 residents within 33 square miles. She is active in both the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs and Fire Department Associations, develops classes for and instructs firefighters in MN and WI, and is on the board of the National Volunteer Fire Council. Judy has a BS Degree in Safety Management from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a MBA (abd) from Cardinal Stritch University, and has completed two Executive Leaders Programs.