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No Easy Answers: The Nature of Diversity and Leadership

July 15, 2009

Editor's Note: The IAFC has begun a dialog regarding the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision of Ricci v. DeStefano.

This article, "No Easy Answers: The Nature of Diversity and Leadership," by Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, chair of the IAFC Human Relations Committee, offers perspective on the nature of diversity and inclusiveness efforts and how the fire and emergency service can lead the way forward.

Ricci v. DeStefano– A New Approach to Disparate-Impact Discrimination in Promotional Testing, by John Rukavina, a retired fire chief and attorney, offers a legal analysis of the case, its progression to the Supreme Court and the impact it may have in local fire departments.

This topic will be featured at two Fire-Rescue International sessions, including a new Sunrise Session on Thursday, August 27. It will also be featured in the Human Resources Seminar held on Wednesday, August 26.

Diversity and inclusiveness is a lot like the fire service. The general population thinks it's simple, a few think it's antiquated and many don't give it the attention it deserves until an emergency. There are two key issues that must be remembered when discussing diversity and inclusiveness:

  1. It's never simple.
  2. It's never not important.

Regardless of your opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in the case of Ricci v. DeStefano, the case and the surrounding discussion underline these core concepts and reminds us that the process of  building fair and equitable practices in the fire service is far from over.

The fire and emergency service—like the rest of the nation—are in an evolutionary process that neither begins nor ends with Ricci. It's neither a deathblow nor a victorious end point—unless we allow it to be, and shame on us if we do.

This is new information on a very long and winding path. We need to figure out how it can help push us forward on our road toward a more diverse, more inclusive, strong fire and emergency service.

What has not changed is the need for every fire and emergency service department to focus on creating a balanced and culturally competent organization to better serve the needs of the community.

What has changed is the discussion on how we do that.

The challenge now is to create a good process to select good candidates for new recruits and promotions. We need to find fair and valid ways to measure the ability of a candidate to be a successful firefighter or EMT, a successful commander and a successful leader. We need to focus on the attributes we will need in a candidate for a position—be it their physical ability, academic ability, values or attitudes—and then focus on how we train them, mentor them and lead them.

We also need to have some greater consistency. Like most other things in the fire service, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. However, variance in promotional testing guidelines across localities and states can be confusing and outdated, and they can tie the hands of local chiefs seeking change. We need to share best practices with each other and strive to lead clarification at the local and state level.

The Ricci v. DeStefano case provides us an opportunity to become ever more vigilant about the issues surrounding diversity and inclusiveness. It forces us to seriously reflect on our current state of diversity and inclusiveness, and it challenges us to work both harder and smarter to ensure fair and equitable opportunities for all firefighters.

It will not be simple. It will always be important. Sounds like a job for the fire service.

Rhoda Mae Kerr is the fire chief of Austin (Tex.) Fire Rescue and chair of the IAFC Human Relations Committee.