Growing Our Ranks: Equity, Inclusion, and the Path to Success

By Ali Rothrock
Reprinted from the NVFC Firefighter Strong newsletter

In today’s fire service, the issues of “diversity and inclusion” are frequently discussed. They are buzzwords that come up at fire service conferences and in departments as leaders strategize how to bolster their dwindling ranks. I think a more accurate way to both describe the problem plaguing the fire service currently and show us a clearer path to eradicating it is to actually switch the order of the words. We cannot have a diverse fire service until we first have an inclusive one.

We can entice people from all walks of life to walk through the firehouse doors, but if the environment they find does not allow room for them they will walk right back out. We see this time and time again in the fire service.

Inclusivity has a lot to do with perspective and personal life experiences. Someone who grew up playing sports might think that slapping someone on the butt is a sign of comradery and of a job well done. Doing that to someone unfamiliar with it or to someone of the opposite gender could contribute to them questioning their physical safety in the station. Someone else might think severely criticizing the new person is a way to show them that they care or that they are a member of the team, but the person on the receiving end may come to dread the station as a hostile environment. You might be an affectionate person and think that giving bear hugs is a way to show inclusivity, but to someone else that is a violation of their personal boundaries. In these cases, well-intentioned attempts at inclusivity miss the mark.

Equality and equity are terms that are also often misinterpreted. Equality is thinking that everyone needs the same thing to be successful. Equity means we understand that different people need different things to reach the same goal. While having “equality” as a part of your fire department’s mission or vision statement or telling prospective members that your department believes in equality for all is positive and a step in the right direction, it is again missing the mark.

I remember a training chief telling me a story about a situation at her local academy that perfectly illustrates this point. Each day she would get a report on the status of all candidates in the current academy class. A few weeks in she started getting word about an issue with one of the candidates, the only woman in the class. This candidate was competent, passionate, and was doing well in all areas except for one, the ladder skill. None of the instructors could tell the training chief exactly what the issue was, so she set out to see the problem for herself.

The next day the training chief, a few instructors, and the candidate stood on the academy grounds at the back of the ladder truck. The candidate was poised and ready at the ladder bed. The instructor had the skill sheet in front of him and a pen ready to write down any issues. He then gave the candidate the command to start. She took a step up on the tailboard and was reaching into the ladder bed to grasp the ladder rung when the instructor yelled, “Stop!” The training chief asked what the issue was. “She has to keep both feet on the ground,” the instructor stated, showing the chief the skill sheet where that specific requirement was noted. The training chief realized the issue and crossed out the requirement that the candidate needed to have both feet on the ground. She gave the candidate the go-ahead to begin again. The candidate stepped up on the tailboard briefly, pulled the ladder out, stepped back down, and completed the rest of the evolution successfully and safely.

In this situation equality would be exactly what that instructor was doing. He assumed that all candidates must perform a skill in the exact same way. Equity would be recognizing that a shorter candidate (it could be male or female) would need to perform the skill in a slightly different way. This change did not cause the candidate or anyone else to be unsafe, nor did it bend the rules to allow her to unfairly succeed. The candidate was not excused from performing the skill as it is certainly a necessary proficiency for the job. The training chief simply recognized that the candidate’s stature made it so she needed to perform the skill in a slightly different way than her taller counterparts.

Perpetuating the myth that firefighters need to all be the same size and weight contributes to an exclusive culture that the fire service cannot ultimately survive. If we continuing to operate from a standpoint of equality and not equity, we will lose competent and passionate firefighters. The well is only so deep. We eventually will have to start appealing to other demographics to fill the ranks. That time is now.

There are many reasons someone might be unwelcome in a firehouse. This applies to all genders and other demographics. There could be more dangerous reasons like abuse or harassment. If this abuse or harassment is not properly dealt with immediately, you will see that toxic attitude spread and spread. There could be less obvious reasons someone feels unwelcome, like not having gear that properly fits. This is a big safety issue but not one that many departments feel is a priority. Another reason someone could feel unwelcome in a firehouse could come from them realizing that the proper facilities don’t exist in the station for them. All of these situations contribute to negative consequences for the individual, the department, and the fire service as a whole.

There are plenty of ways to create a more inclusive environment to get your department ready for diverse ranks. Be clear on your expectations for your members and leaders. Be very clear on what comments and behaviors you will not tolerate. Take anti-discrimination training. Make sure that your SOPs/SOGs are up-to-date and reflect your diverse ranks.

It is important to understand that equity and inclusivity are not a zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game there are no winners without losers. For every point you win, someone else loses a point. But making sure that someone has gear that fits them doesn’t mean you get less gear that fits you. More value is created when we treat others with equity. In the fire service, we are all winners when we create an inclusive and equitable environment for our members and recruits. Having more participants in the game means we all have a better chance to be successful.

Ali Rothrock serves as a firefighter and EMT in Pennsylvania. She works full time in mental health education, serves on her local CISM team, is the Eastern Division Trustee of Women in Fire, and is CEO and lead instructor of On the Job and Off. Learn more at