numbers when the City of Toledo announces the demographics
of its upcoming fire class. The class, 70+ percent diverse,
including women, will be the most diverse non-court ordered
fire class in Toledo’s history.
Here is the breakdown by
race or ethnicity and gender, subject to final medical
3 Latino females
6 Latino males
9 White females
13 White males
2 Black females
15 Black males
According to recent
statistics provided by the Harvard Business Review,
ninety-six percent of career firefighters in America are men
and 82 percent are White. The Toledo Fire Department (TFD)
is approximately 76 percent White. Although African
Americans comprise 27 percent of Toledo’s population, Black
firefighters only account for about 13 percent of active TFD
personnel. These numbers clearly paint the department as one
that is not representative of the people it serves.
I have witnessed previous
City and TFD administrations fail miserably to achieve
diversity in its public safety forces. There have also been
lawsuits and allegations of racial discrimination and a
racially charged hostile culture within TFD.
So, kudos to Chief Brian
Byrd and Battalion Chief Danny Brown-Martinez for
recognizing the Toledo Fire Department’s abhorrent
homogeneity and the commitment to increasing racial and
What accounts for the
difference in the most recent exceptional outcomes?
proportion of emergency calls to which TFD responds are
medical emergencies (64 – 80 percent) rather than fires
(four-15 percent). In an era where U.S., Ohio, and local
demographics are changing rapidly, Byrd and Martinez
understand that the “browning of America” brings more
complex service demands.
firefighters must demonstrate a complex mix of skills. Chief
among these is social emotional competence, needful in
building trust among those experiencing emotional trauma, a
situation frequently encountered among diverse communities.
Fire departments, then, must speak the language and have
cultural knowledge of the communities they serve.
Firefighters must have empathy and be able to communicate
with the people they serve; many pf whom need someone to
hold their hand or listen to them as they release suppressed
grief and anxiety.
Therefore, the more
diverse the fire department, the more effective it will be
to serve diverse communities. This perspective was not truly
considered in the past, according to those familiar with TFD
Also, the recruiting
strategy has completely changed from the processes used in
“Before, we used to have a
handful of recruiting people that we called a recruiting
team that were only recruiting for four and a half weeks –
the very minimum amount of time,” said an unnamed source
familiar with the procedure. “This time, we created a
community engagement bureau that put people out in the
community doing things year-round. The team was visible in
the community and involved in community activities, actively
and passively recruiting,” the source added.
The extra time and
resources enabled TFD recruiters to bring enough qualified
people across all demographics to take the written test.
This resulted in the most diverse eligibility list than the
fire department has ever had. “This job is not a regular
job, and we have to take the time and put the effort into
getting qualified and quality people to the table. People
who understand what we’re here for - that this is a
community service job; people that understand the physical
and academic requirements of the job. When you recruit in
such a way that you pull a diverse group of people to the
table, and this is the end result.”
Finally, diversity is key
to establishing trust in communities of color. Byrd and
Brown-Martinez, therefore, reached out to build
relationships with the Black, Brown and other diverse
communities as a recruiting tool. Most prominent outreach
efforts include partnerships with Toledo Public Schools and
community pillars such as Deon Thompson, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Sports and Recreation owner.
Who gets the credit?
The buck always stops at
the mayor’s office and his administration, whether the
results are good or bad. However, in addition to the people
in the community engagement bureau, this was a
department-wide effort. I am told that several firefighters
– male, female, on duty, off duty - put in the time and
effort to assist with this.
Lessons for others trying
to improve their diversity?
Promoting and achieving
diversity is not a mere flavor of the month undertaking.
Organizations must first need to understand the community,
its needs, and its culture. Then it is necessary to obtain
community partners who also understand the community’s
need. Finally, it is critical to cast a wide net and
legitimately put in the time, work, effort and resources.
That’s an oversimplified
way of stating it, but “it’s the truth because what we were
doing before was woefully deficient.”
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, D.Min, at