Craig Weaver:  

From Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, a leader in emergency response training, Response Leadership. A podcast bringing you leadership expertise from the top minds in emergency response. Dr. Reginald Freeman is the Chief Risk Officer with the HAI group in Chester Connecticut. Previously he has served as Chief of the Oakland Fire Department, Chief of the Hartford Fire Department and Fire Chief of the Defense Corporation, Locke Martin. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in leadership, he has a master’s in Executive Fire Service Leadership and a Ph.D. in Emergency and Protective Services.   

Dr. Reginald Freeman:   

Thank you so much. And once again, my name is Dr. Reginald Freeman. And today, I am so ecstatic to talk with you about diversity in the fire service. Now, the fire service, our beloved fire service, is unique in many different regards.  

Number one, we have pretty much automatic respect and admiration from those that we serve. When people see a fire engine, a truck or heavy rescue or even an ambulance come to their residence or come to where they’re at in their time of need, they know that we’re going to go above and beyond and help them. That’s something special that other public safety agencies or public servants do not enjoy. But we’ve had challenges in the fire service to ensure that our ranks are diverse. We’ve had challenges of ensuring that our organization is truly reflective of those that we serve. And I’d say for the last ten years there’s been a lot of discussion about diversity, equity and inclusion in the fire service and some individuals honestly speaking, are experiencing DEI fatigue. And simply put, they’re just tired of talking about it. They ask the question, Why did we have to continue to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion? And I believe that is a very valid question. And so today I want to talk to you a little bit about that, why it’s so important for us to continue to have this conversation and dialog.  

Now, for those who did not know, for the first time in our nation’s history, our presidential appointed U.S. Fire Administrator happens to be a woman, our U.S. Fire Administrator, presidentially appointed, happens to be a woman. Our deputy U.S. Fire Administrator happens to be a woman. And if you look at the city of New York, in the state of New York, for the first time in its long storied history, the police commissioner is a woman and the fire commissioner is a woman. 

And you may say, well, Dr. Freeman, why does that matter? It matters. And it’s relevant because 20 years ago, that most likely would not have happened. It’s happened because we have removed barriers and limitations that previously existed. And when people are given a fair and equitable opportunity, this is the kind of magic that can happen. No one gave these individuals anything. They earned the right to be where they’re at. And it should be applauded because we are embracing different elements of our society that have not been consistently welcome, especially in the fire service. Now, if you look at the IFSTA manual, NFPA 1001, and you go to page two, one of the first things you’re going to see written in that manual is that fire departments should be reflective of their community. But oftentimes, even in major metropolitan cities, that is not the case. And so we have to ask the question, why is that? And so when we look at those reasonings and those barriers, we have a lot of fire chiefs who are addressing this issue. A lot of communities who are addressing this issue. And oftentimes it is because of dated procedures and protocol that are not truly reflective of our mission today.  

I know for me as a fire chief, when I bring on a new member of the organization, my goal is to hire a good person because I can train that individual to be a great firefighter. Let me say that again. My job as the fire chief is to hire good people because we can train those good people to be great firefighters. And just so happens, they are reflective of our community. When I was Fire Chief in Hartford, I hired 125 people in six years I was Fire Chief there. 91 of those 125 just happen to be persons of color. Hartford, Connecticut, is 85% persons of color. And so when we remove barriers to our hiring processes, we can truly ensure that we are hiring the best and more importantly, without compromising standards. Because that’s a conversation that also comes up when we talk about diversity in the fire service is, well, we should not compromise or lower the standards just for the sake of diversity. And I agree with that statement 100%. And I don’t think any good fire chief would limit themselves to lowering the standard just for the sake of diversity. 

But if we start having conversations as to why diversity is important, I think we will all be singing from the same sheet of music. Again, the foundation of any relationship is based off communication. And so for me, the task is simple, to communicate to everyone what our goals or objectives are, to hear what their ideas are, how we get to accomplishing our common goals. Because I think when it’s all said and done, when those tones hit, every member running outside those doors, they just want to make sure that person standing to their left or their right is going to be able to do their job, so everyone goes home. If we stay focused on the mission and not focus on one’s ethnicity or gender or orientation, that is where we can be the most productive, professional emergency responders. And so talking about diversity in the fire service can’t happen without also talking about equity, inclusion and a sense of belonging. When we are an equitable organization that welcomes everyone, we are an organization that is consistent because I do not believe in the word fair. Fair is too subjective. Consistency, however, there’s no room for interpretation. 

If Johnny does X, and Johnny and I, we play softball together and he has X infraction and Jane does Y the exact same infraction, the repercussions should be the same. That is the definition of consistency. And so having a diverse workforce that is equitable lends trust within the organization. And when we are inclusive at the same time, we are giving everyone an opportunity to be able to say, this is what I think or how about this, without any slight chance of retaliation or repercussions. And that inclusiveness lends itself to us being able to be model agencies that others can emulate. For us, being able to have adult conversations about what’s happening in society, because there’s always those topics that we say we should never talk about in the firehouse, which is race and politics. But what do we talk about all the time at the kitchen table? Race and politics. Company officers can have these conversations based on the foundation of mutual respect and professionalism. Because all too often when we have conversations, people they don’t listen to understand, they simply listen just so they can respond. But if we just take that moment to listen to someone else’s perspective, because keep in mind, our personal experiences drives our perspectives. Worst case scenario that can happen is that we can actually learn something. We can cultivate that friendship that we have with that individual that we risk our lives with and have a true understanding about where they’re coming from, from a mutually respectable place. And so a diverse organization that is equitable, that is truly inclusive, gives members a sense of belonging.  

Now, that sense of belonging is huge because I can easily trade the word belonging out for pride, because all of us we join this profession for a reason. I know for me my reason is I’m very passionate about people and I’m passionate about serving. That is the reason why I wanted to be a firefighter. And to this day, 22 years later, when people ask me what I do, a stranger, most of the times at the airport, I say, I’m a firefighter. My job happens to be fire chief. But my roots, my foundation is that of a firefighter. Because if I have that connection with the line and if I have that mentality, I’m better suited to do my job and to serve my members. But our community also expects us to be diverse, our community expects us to be equitable, our community expects us to be inclusive, and those are things that are non-negotiable. And so and when we look at diversity, often times we get wrapped up with simply ethnicity or gender. Diversity is much more than that. I know for me I was doing the dishes, doing laundry, doing yard work, I think at eight years old I was so young, I cant even remember when I started doing those chores.  

Have I hired members of the organization who have never started a lawnmower or a chainsaw? Yes, I have. But does it mean that those individuals are less valued than every other member of the team? Absolutely not, because everyone brings something to the table. I have had the pleasure of hiring persons that are millennials, persons that are members of Gen Z, and then them being able to help with all kind of administrative tasks that our senior command staff had no clue of doing, especially if talking about software. They bring value, they can contribute, and they’re also passionate about serving as a firefighter. So where one may be strong and another is weak. We balance each other with our personal perspectives and experiences. That is what truly makes a special team, when we can do that in concert without missing a beat. But it can never happen if we don’t start from a place of respect and start from a place of honor. 

Diversity also, of course, not just from a ethnicity or gender perspective, but also let’s just talk about of the retirements that are occurring now with our baby boomers and even some Gen Xers who are moving on. We now have voids that are being filled by capable candidates as we talk about the officer ranks, but less experienced. I can recall a time to where we had a contract and the union gave up over $3 million in concessions to the mayor, and with that, we had a number of senior members that were going to retire. Now, I was in a pickle and a dilemma because I could not have these roughly 200 members all walk out the door at the same time. So I had a conversation with the union president and I asked if I could get the mayor to sign off on a contract extension, will you sign it? He said yes. Went to the mayor, told the mayor, your Honor, with all due respect, I need you to sign this contract extension. If not, we are not going to be able to meet our mission as it pertains to fire and emergency services and after conversation, the mayor signed the contract extension so did union president. But that extension was only a delay for the inevitable, which was these senior members that were going to retire.  

So what do we do? We establish a professional development program to make sure that these members were properly prepared, prior to them being promoted. They did not have the experience, obviously, that these senior members had that were retiring, but we were giving them the training that they needed to help fill that gap, because at the end of the day, we want persons in positions of authority that are competent. And when I define competency, I define it as training, education and experience, but more importantly, the application of that training, education and experience. There’s absolutely no replacement for experience, but you can shop your weaknesses with training and education. And so from a diversity standpoint, we were in a dilemma to where we had now younger members of the organization ascending the organizational ladder a lot sooner than they normally had. And that is an element of diversity. We also have in a lot of our jurisdictions and organizations, affinity groups, as they call them, whether that be African-American Firefighters Association, Latin American Firefighters Association, Women’s Fire and Emergency Services Association groups, and maybe even LGBTQ plus associations.  

And I’ve heard discussions and dialogs about, well, why do they have to separate themselves and be different? Well, the answer to the latter part is these individuals are different. They have different perspectives. It’s not that they are better or less than or they’re trying to be different. They have different experiences than other individuals. So to come together, to have conversations as a collective team and any and everyone can join these associations no matter what their backgrounds are that only makes the organization and the team better when we have these open discussions to ensure that the workplace is truly equitable and inclusive and that should be embraced and not looked at as a threat. And belonging, obviously, that’s something that we all yearn for. I can recall early on in my career the organization was not diverse, it was not equitable, it was not inclusive, and I certainly did not have a sense of belonging as I started my career in Mississippi.,  

Now, it was February 19, 2001, my first day on the job, but it might as well have been Jim Crow 1960. Those are the horrendous acts that I was experiencing as a new firefighter in an organization that did not value diversity, equity, inclusion. And so those challenges is what made me the person and the fire chief that I am today. I’ve experienced having to pay for my own classes so I can better myself. I’ve experience racism. I’ve experienced marginalization. All of those things are something that I don’t wish upon anyone as a matter of fact, anyone who is biased or racist, if they truly knew what that felt like, they wouldn’t dare do it to anyone else. And that’s something that no one should have to go through., And so in the fire service, we are an extended family and we should all embrace diversity, equity, inclusion and make sure that everyone has a sense of belonging within the organization.  

And that should be the expectation and not the exception. And so as we look at what we can do within our respective jurisdictions to embrace the DEIB, we first have to look at ourselves. We first have to ask ourself, am I truly being inviting to everyone that I come in contact with, whether that be my teammates or family members on the job or the residents or visitors that I come in contact with as I execute my duties and responsibilities? That is the first question that we have to ask ourself, because that is where change truly happens within our respective organizations. It starts with self. And then secondly, we should be able to have conversations as a company about what diversity equity and inclusion looks like. It even feels like we can talk about barriers if they exist and how we can overcome those barriers, how we can make everyone feel as if they are valued and that they are members of the team, undisputedly. We can also take that conversation from a company level to the battalion and whether that conversation is led by battalion chiefs or even a senior member of the organization who’s well respected because we all know some of the most respected members within a fire department don’t wear brass, their salty firefighters that are salty company officers. And those persons, whether they are in legit positions of authority or if they are informal leaders, they should also have those conversations to ensure that we are treating everyone the way that they should be treated without compromise.,  

And so I have a friend of mine who recently got appointed as the chief of Diversity Equity Inclusion, or Deputy commissioner excuse me for FDNY. He’s retired assistant chief for the city of Los Angeles, Dr. Kwami Cooper. Now, Dr. Cooper has been a champion of DEI for decades. He serves Los Angeles Fire Department for 38 years. And now he’s from actually New York City. So this has been a home going for him. But as him and I have had conversations and have taught internationally on the topic of DEI, one thing that he says consistently to me that I have never forgotten is that Reggie, we get in our own way. It is up to us to be able to make a difference and to instill change. We should not have to wait for the fire chief to come out with a policy or the city to come out with a policy to establish a department DEI committee. We can take those steps ourselves, but we choose not to. And we have to ask ourselves, why is that? It sounds simple enough to have these conversations. It sounds simple enough to be able to make sure that we have an equitable and inclusive workplace.,  

But the fire service that I know and the fire service that I love, I know we are going to get this right. It’s 2023 and times are changing. For the city of Oakland, we recently established town firefighters in the acronym stands for the Oakland Women and Nonbinary Firefighters. Now being established for literally just one year, they have hosted two girls camps and have participated in a total of six different camps throughout the state of California. Average attendance of these camps are roughly 40 attendees, and I have personally attended five of these camps just to show my support. And the smiles on these young girls and these young women’s faces as they go through these different stations and these evolutions, and to see the pride and joy and all the instructors that are there, it is truly moving. For me as a fire chief, I feel very hopeful about where we are at and the direction that we are going as it pertains to being more equitable, more diverse, more inclusive, and everyone having a sense of belonging.,  

And if it can happen in Oakland and have that kind of impact and less than 12 months, it can happen anywhere. And as Dr. Cooper said, we just have to get out of our own way. Words are words. Actions are actions. And so 22 years in a fire service, I was hoping that we would be further along than where we at, but we have made strides in the right direction. We have now a profession that is still struggling to recruit. Recruitment is a problem nationwide for fire departments as well as police departments and even the U.S. military, all branches. But if we continue to keep our standards high and remove barriers that are prejudice, that are unnecessary, then we can truly have members of our organization that are not only from our jurisdictions, but are reflective of our communities. And that is the fire service that I know and that is the fire service that I love. No matter where we’re from, no matter what religion we practice, no matter our orientation, we can make a difference as we always have. We can continue to provide exceptional service to our communities. We can and will continue to be that breath of fresh air to our residents in their time of need when they need us the most.,  

It doesn’t matter if it’s EMS call, a structure fire or a motor vehicle accident or a technical rescue or hazmat call. It doesn’t matter. We are the hope and we are reflective of everything that is good within our respective societies and communities. And so diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is something that we have talked about, something that we should continue to talk about, but from a place of mutual respect and understanding. We have to listen to understand and not just listen to respond. Because again, that is where the true magic happens. Thank you for your time and for your attention. It has been my pleasure to be with you today. 

 Craig Weaver:  

Thanks for listening to Response Leadership brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. Follow us or visit to listen. 

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