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Diversity in the Fire Service

Bao To Diversity in the workplace creates room for new ideas as well as the possibility of increased conflict. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Fire Service, where new recruits and veteran firefighters live together, eat together and place their lives on the line for a career that prides itself on tradition. Some people may learn to tolerate differences within the normal workday, but old stereotypes, unconscious behaviors and occupational stress collide in volatile ways when living with co-workers on 24-hour shifts.

We have to kind of be like a family - this is our second family.  Everybody here has a different way of thinking, different way of acting - even coming down to food.  
- Bao To, Oakland firefighter, Vietnamese immigrant

In the 1970s, when people of color and women began entering the Fire Service in significant numbers, groups began to organize for change. But change has come slowly. Some fire departments made efforts to diversify only after consent decrees from local or federal governments mandated affirmative action programs. Others led the way long before affirmative action became widespread.

Integration has also challenged the guild-like structure of the firefighting profession. Many veteran firefighters have come from families with several generations of white men in the Fire Service. Recruitment, training and leadership have helped to honor and preserve lineages that favor bigger, stronger firefighters. However, women and male firefighters of small stature have discovered alternative physical techniques that are not only effective, but also efficient and safe.

Some men in the Fire Service welcome the self-evaluation sparked by integration and applaud the improvements that they see.

If the big guys use the same technique as the smaller people, they distribute the work more throughout their body, fatigue more slowly and have less potential for pulling muscles.
- Fire Agency training chief

With firefighting being a traditionally white male profession, it is not surprising that firefighters strongly resisted the introduction of people, especially women, who did not fit their image of an ideal firefighter.

Chandra Holiday
Chandra Holiday

Mark Hoffmann
Mark Hoffmann
I'm 5'1", so I'm considered a short person. Two people that were on my board were well over six feet tall. I can just imagine what they might have thought about little old me coming and dragging one of them out of a fire.
- Chandra Holiday, Oakland Fire Department candidate

Diversity in the Fire Service begins with recruitment and training. Sexism, racism and other forms of prejudice, discrimination and harassment, however, continue to be obstacles for career firefighters. The culture of hazing new recruits and other outsiders is deeply entrenched in the Fire Service. One firefighter said, "Weakness is the last thing you want to show at work. When we smell blood we go in for the kill."

How a person reacts to it [hazing] speaks a lot to how they're going to handle the stress - how they're gonna handle the runs, having co-workers die on the job.
- Oakland Fire Department Captain Mark Hoffmann

Many women and people of color leave the Fire Service, sometimes in the midst of successful careers, in order to avoid daily harassment, isolation and scrutiny. In what is already a high-stress profession, these added negative factors can take their toll.

I am the first and only woman in my department to be promoted to engineer and captain. I am the only woman to be a recruit instructor at the Fire Academy. I think some wear and tear comes with being first so many times.
- Source: Women in the Fire Service, Inc.

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