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Fire Service Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

On this episode, we talk with Dr. Jennifer Taylor about diversity, equity and inclusion within the fire service, and more specifically, how to start the conversations within our organizations.

Posted: Oct. 20, 2022 | Updated: March 31, 2023

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Inclusion is about promoting justice, impartiality and fairness within our procedures and processes.

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Listen online 26:32

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Estimated 18 min reading time.

Dr. Jennifer Taylor
Dr. Jennifer Taylor

Welcome to The USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I'm your host Teresa Neal. This month we're discussing diversity, equity and inclusion within the fire service, and more specifically, how to start the conversations within our organizations.

Our guest is Dr. Jennifer Taylor, director of the Center of Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends, or “FIRST,” and professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University.

Teresa Neal

The FIRST Center is a research, education and practice enterprise comprised of data scientists, epidemiologists, organizational scientists and psychologists. It supports the fire and rescue service through objective data collection and analysis on safety, culture, stress, mental health and injury. Dr. Taylor has completed extensive research and has worked closely with the Metro Chiefs to develop an educational program to ensure everyone feels seen and included in the fire service and in our fire stations.

Starting the necessary conversations can seem daunting. We often begin with our feelings, but inclusion is not about our individual feelings. It is really about promoting justice, impartiality and fairness within our procedures and processes. But instead of listening to me, let's learn from Dr. Taylor.

Thank you, Dr. Taylor, for agreeing to be with us today and to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. I know that you have a lot of background in this, so if you could just tell us a little bit about your work in this area.

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

Well, I think there's been a lot of incredible focusing events in society, which have made us all look inward as members of this society to think about, where are we on our understanding, our journey, through a more diverse, equitable and inclusive society? And I, as a university professor and as director of a fire service research education and practice center, have been asking myself the same question. I am, by no stretch of the imagination, an expert.

I am a learner, a student on this journey, as many of us are. There are very few experts out there and those that are out there are pretty exhausted by being asked for their opinions all the time. But how I got involved in it actually is from my students at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University.

As you know, this new generation comes with a different understanding of their own identity, a much more expansive definition of who they are. And they're fairly fluid about how they define themselves. And as a professor who teaches them, I need to be competent to address them from a position of respect. So, they've taught me, and fortunately, a lot of those students are interested in the fire service, whether it's on issues of DEI or other issues.

So, that's how I really started in this place, and we reached out to thought leaders in the fire service to see what they were thinking about the inclusion of data elements that would help us get a handle on DEI issues and outcomes. And that's really how I started this work with the fire service.

Teresa Neal

You and I spoke earlier, and I came at it at a different level. I think I was thinking about DEI maybe the way that the average person thinks about DEI: on a personal level. And you really adjusted my thought processes on this and really redefined it for me. So maybe you could do that for those listening to the podcast today, too.

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

Sure, and that idea is really based on the work of Dr. Camara Jones and her widely publicized paper called “The Gardener's Tale,” and in that she talks about the levels of racism, in particular, when we're thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion. So, she's thinking about how does racism actually act out in society? And I think what happens is when we talk about racism or diversity, equity and inclusion, people automatically get into a very personal space.

They start thinking of themselves. Am I sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic Islamophobic, all of those things, and they're not thinking about it's not really about you, it's about us, and it's about what structures have we put in place in the society we've built that keep people out of the benefits of the society that we created. And so, we really need to think and start these conversations at a structural level.

And structure is our policies like things like redlining where certain — we drew absolute lines and boundaries where people of color could not purchase homes or would have very adverse mortgage requirements to buy homes in those areas as a way to keep things segregated. So that's not an individual racist act — that's a systemic act, it's a policy act, it's a group act. And I think when we start in that space, and we think about — as people in the fire and rescue service — what are the structures and policies that are still out there that are continually marginalizing people we want in the fire service?

Teresa Neal


Dr. Jennifer Taylor

We want the fire service to look like our communities. So, are we making overtures to women? Are we making overtures to people who identify as LGBTQI, etc.? Are we reaching out to people who reflect the language composite of our neighborhoods? And so, if our policies prevent us from doing that, we are engaging in structural obstruction.

That's where I think the fire and rescue service can do the most work quickly — is examine our policies, examine our structures, and remove those barriers. That's my understanding as a researcher who supports the fire and rescue service, and as an educator in that industry that the direction the fire service wants to move.

And so, diversity we can see that we want our fire service to reflect the community that they serve. So, we know what diversity means. When we talk about equity, maybe people don't always understand what equity means. So, sometimes we think what we're doing — it's fair. Fair is that everybody gets the same thing. But that is not equality; that is not building equity. And fair is completely different. And can you explain that a little bit?

I'm a professor of occupational safety and health, so I think about personal protective equipment, right? PPE. You don't fit the person to the work, you fit the work to the worker, right? So, PPE is a great example. So, if I am a 5-foot, 4-inch woman — which I'm not, actually I'm 5 feet, 6 inches, so I'm very happy about that — but if I were a 5-foot, 4-inch woman, and you gave me turnouts for a man who was 6 feet tall, that's not going to fit me. Do I get the gear? Absolutely. I get the same gear he gets. Fair? Sure. But not really fair because it doesn't fit me, and that's going to cause problems when I'm trying to do the job.

All of us are different heights, different sizes. We have different centers of gravity. All of that stuff. We have different preferences for gear and how things fit. And we want to be able to not have the gear be an impediment to doing our job. Equity is really about making sure that people have what they need, not what everybody else is getting. So, it's about justice, impartiality; it is about fairness, but it's about how things are distributed and that when it's distributed to us, it fits what we need.

Equity is really about making sure that people have what they need, not what everybody else is getting.

Teresa Neal

I'm going to steal your thunder a little bit here. You told me diversity plus equity equals inclusion. Do you want to speak to that a bit since I stole your thunder and said it first?

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

Oh no, no problem. I think there's been many analogies out there; they're not my own. So, if you think about it — at the kitchen table in the firehouse — who's sitting around that table? Do we have people with different races, genders, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language ability, religious commitment, politics, right? If we have all of those people around the kitchen table, we have diversity, right? So, everybody's there, but does everybody have a voice at the table?

And when we're having issues about, you know, how are we going to do this pre-event building inspection, right? And the captain is saying how we're going to roll. And does a person of color feel like they can speak up and say, “Hey, well, I happen to know that neighborhood and I know that there's this issue, that issue with the building.” The person who maybe comes from a lower socioeconomic status and is really familiar with people with disabilities saying, “Hey, there are some access issues with that building.” Do those people around the table get to speak up and have their voice heard? Are they asked to speak and is what they say considered and valued? And that's where we take diversity. So, equity is that voice, right?

Giving people an opportunity to contribute — to be seen as contributing — from the space of their identity and the space of their expertise. So, when we combine diversity with equity, we get inclusion, and that's feeling like I am truly welcomed. I truly belong. I truly deserve to be here. I'm invited to be here and because of my identity, because of my diversity, because of my voice, I am able to fully participate in what we're trying to do in this fire department.

Teresa Neal

Last year you presented at the Metro Chief's Annual Conference Symposium, and you discussed you had done a survey of the fire chiefs, and then were reporting out what you found from people's understandings and what the fire service needed. Would you like to speak to that?

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

It was a great opportunity for me. And again, I'm a student. I'm on this journey with the fire and rescue service. And so, for me, one of the first things that I do when people ask me to help work with them on a particular challenge is to do some assessment — like: “Where are you at? What are you thinking? What do you know? What do you not know?” And that's what we asked the Metro Chiefs.

We heard a lot about the key takeaways from that assessment of about 50 or so fire chiefs who responded to that survey. We have some resource issues in the fire and rescue service. This issue of, wow, we are not as diverse, equitable and inclusive as we want to be, as our communities are looking for, and as the fire service. This isn't something we learned in the academy.

These are skills that we may not have, but we may be in positions of leadership, and we're being asked by our city councils, our town leaders, our communities, to get with the times. And so, one of the things that was strongly identified by the Metro Chiefs was we need resources, we need training, we need educational curricula, we need simulations, so that if I'm learning — if I'm a chief of a department and someone around the kitchen table says something against an LGBTQ+ person, I know exactly how to step in.

I don't just go to my office and hide; I say: “Hey, that's, you know, that's not appropriate. That person is very valued. They bring lots in terms of their experience as a firefighter and their knowledge of the community with which they identify. That's critical to us to providing good patient care and good fire suppression.” And we all have to learn how to say things better. So, you know when somebody says something obnoxious to you and you just draw a blank and you're shocked and then a half-hour later when you're discussing it with your husband, you're like, “I should have said this, I wish I had said that.” We all want to have that muscle memory. That's so important in the fire rescue service.

We want to have that muscle memory here so that we stand up for those because at the end of the day, it could be us, right? So, I think one of the other interesting things we learned in this survey was that there is a lot of white male grief out there in the fire and rescue service, where they feel like, “I have to apologize for being a white guy.” And it's like, well, that's a really interesting perspective to tune into because you feel like you have to apologize for who you are. Well, that's every marginalized and underrepresented person out there. They have spent a lifetime feeling like I have to apologize for being a woman, or I have to apologize for being black, or Muslim, or short, or disabled, or whatever.

So that's the point of inclusion, Teresa, is that this matters for all of us. This does not exclude white males in the fire service from this work. It's about all of us, and the thing that we've learned in education and in teaching, is when we reach out to that person who's been underrepresented, who has less of a voice, it lifts the tide for everyone. It doesn't take a job from someone. It creates understanding among people, so this is not a threat. It's a threat because it's unknown to us, which is why the Metro Chiefs have said: “We've got to have training. We've got to have curriculum. We've got to have people talking about their lived experiences so that we understand how absolutely traumatizing to be marginalized can be for an individual, and we have to put an end to that at the fire service. We need to get out and be first in on that.”

… when we reach out to that person who's been underrepresented, who has less of a voice, it lifts the tide for everyone. It doesn't take a job from someone. It creates understanding among people, so this is not a threat.

Teresa Neal

And we have to know it so that we can continue to get people to volunteer. You know, many areas of the country are covered by volunteer fire services. And as you said, your students coming into your classrooms, they have a very fluid way of seeing themselves and viewing the world around them and their place in that world. And if we continue on that same pathway that we've been on, we're not making it a place that's welcoming to someone who might feel differently or might live a different way than us.

So that is another one of the issues that we have with volunteering. We can't keep doing the status quo because we've seen the numbers drop. We've seen less people volunteering. I'm sure there's lots of reasons why, but this could also be one of the reasons why — is that people don't feel seen and heard and valued.

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

Yeah, well, and you've got to remember, Teresa, that these young people coming into the fire and rescue service, they are used to being inclusive. They are not going to sit around the kitchen table and watch you suppress the voice of someone else and not say something because we have raised these people. They are our children. We have raised them to speak up, to ask questions when they're not sure about something. We've arranged every living moment for them. So, we have made them into these “why machines,” right? “Why do we do it this way? Why have we always done it this way? Why should I do this?” And that is a product of our own making.

… young people coming into the fire and rescue service, they are used to being inclusive. They are not going to sit around the kitchen table and watch you suppress the voice of someone else and not say something …

There's nothing wrong with it, but we have to meet it where it's at. So, the new generations — it's not just even about sexual orientation and gender identity; it's also about generationalism. This younger generation has a different work ethic than the generation that's training them. And we think as older people — as I am — or that we're better or we have a better work ethic. But actually, what the young people are teaching us is we should have more work-life balance, right? We should have more time with our families. We should have lower rates of divorce in the fire and rescue service. We should have lower rates of exposure because we're not taking all those overtime jobs.

They're saying, they're showing us, they're that canary in the coal mine saying, “We want balance.” And if the fire and rescue service isn't offering them an environment that gives them that balance, whether it's career or volunteer, they're not going to want to do it because they want to be able to have all the things that we raise them having. And the commitment to one job, one identity occupationally, is not how we raised them. So, it's not surprising to me at all, Teresa, that this is their reaction to it.

Teresa Neal

This diversity, it also spills over into how we engage with the public. You know, if we have a fire service that looks like the community, I think it's easier for us to get those messages out. So, I work in messaging mostly, and how do we get messaging out to the community? How do we get them to grab it? We need to find a way to speak to people to get it to click with them about those things they can do to be safer in their homes. I think that institutional diversity and inclusion — once a fire department looks like the community — that maybe that gives us some of those inroads that we have missed or possibly missed and being able to speak to our communities and help them to be safer.

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

I agree with you, Teresa, but I want to take it to a different level and get at some nuance here. So, looking like our communities is one thing, but we violate one of the basic ground rules of DEI when we do that which is: You cannot assume because you have a proportionate amount of black people on your roster that reflect your community that they're culturally competent, right? And by converse, it's not to say that a white person who is serving a predominantly black community cannot be culturally competent and sensitive. They don't have the lived experience, absolutely, but they can meet them where they're at and serve them with respect.

… you can become competent in serving people who are unfamiliar to you with whom their lifestyle or political orientation you don't agree with, and you can do a job respectfully, because that's what the fire and rescue service is, whether paid or unpaid. It is a professional calling. It is a social service calling.

This is particularly something I want to say to our white male audience — that you can become competent in serving people who are unfamiliar to you with whom their lifestyle or political orientation you don't agree with, and you can do a job respectfully, because that's what the fire and rescue service is, whether paid or unpaid. It is a professional calling. It is a social service calling. And so, you need to meet people where they need to be met. I don't bring my political beliefs to work. I don't bring that to work. I'm there to do a job and I'm going to do it, serve that person, and I'm going to go back to my own beliefs, and that's the way I'm going to live my life.

But, you know, everyone can be trained. I am trained. I am, just so you know — for your audience — I am a white woman. As this woman, I identify with the biological sex with which I was born female. And I teach students of all orientations of all lived experiences — things I will never understand. And yet, I am competent with them. I don't have to look like them to teach them about the fire and rescue service. I need to understand how they might approach that learning, but we can all evolve into this space. So, it's not just about something as simple as quotas, or we have this good mix, or it looks good, right? Those people have to be competent as well, so that's the next step and we can all share in that, and we can all rise and become competent and respectful of all communities we serve.

Teresa Neal

So, what else do you think that the fire service needs? We need training, and I know there are a lot of groups looking at how we can better train firefighters and first responders and even all of us that work with them that aren't actually out there being the first responders. How can we better educate ourselves?

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

I think there were so many issues raised by the Metro Chiefs around the resource deficits in the DEI space. So, they fall into about 6 buckets, and they're things as simple as: “I need definitions for what diversity, equity, inclusion mean; I need to know what gender identity is; I need to know, you know, what are the practices of certain religious groups.” I think there was a lot of expression of, “I want to hear the stories of people's lived experiences so that I can identify with how they were hurt by their marginalization or under-representation.”

I think there's a yearning to understand, and that's one of the things we're building at the FIRST Center at Drexel with the Metro Chiefs — is this curriculum where these resources would be there, there'd be storytelling, there'd be ways to ask questions in a safe manner, and there would be really good education and resources to make sure people create this inclusive environment, which again, includes all of us.

But there's more to it than the resources there. The other resources that we haven't talked about, yet you talked earlier about hiring and retention. And you know of diverse boots on the ground folks, but we also need to really think about, how do we — from a structural perspective — how do we institutionalize our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion in our fire department? And so, you'll remember that DEI started out as something, usually in a human resources department with compliance, right?

Teresa Neal

Right. Like you said, do we have the numbers of people that fit all the classifications so that we can say, “We're well rounded”? Or they're competent in dealing with one another?

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

Quite honestly, as you know, every firefighter listening to this will know, it was a CYA effort to make sure you weren't going to get sued, right? So, we do have policies that say how we're hiring and that we're nondiscriminatory, but what the Metro Chiefs want to do is so far beyond. So, let's think about structure. Some fire departments will have a chief diversity officer or a diversity-equity-inclusion project manager. Where does that person sit? Do they sit buried in the HR department or do they sit at the leadership table of the fire department? That structure sends a very different message to the boots on the ground about how much it matters to this fire department.

And so, if you just hide them in a corner and it's one person and they have no budget and no funding, that's going to be checking the box. And that's what the Metro Chiefs has expressed fear about. They're like: “We don't want this to be a flash in the pan initiative. We don't want this to be checking a box so that we don't get sued or that the City Council is fine with it. We want to make transformational change. We want to fundamentally change how the fire and rescue service rolls, how it looks, and its cultural competency with all communities. We're in all-hazards response now. We're not just the fire department. We are in all-community response now. We are an all-community culturally competent response.” You can put me in any fire department in the country, and I will know how to be respectful with that patient or with that person whose house is on fire, anywhere.

That's the kind of standard that the Metro Chiefs are driving towards, and that's why we're developing this curriculum where all these questions will be answered to the best of our ability given the current knowledge we have. But we're going to advocate for policies and create model policies that people can adopt and checklists and things that fire chiefs and leadership teams can think about. Where's your DEI person? Do you only have one? You know, do you support that person? Do you stand up with that person? Do you give them the resources they need? And are you addressing all of the issues that are raised by people in your department about their feelings of being excluded by such an initiative? How do we do it all? That's what inclusions about.

Teresa Neal

Right. And can you tell us a little bit about the FIRST Center? And we've both said it a couple times, but I want to be able to let everybody know what it is and how they can find it.

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

The easiest way to find us is just Google “Drexel,” D-r-e-x-e-l, and FIRST, and we are sure to come up. So, we are a research, education and practice entity committed for life to the fire and rescue service. And our areas of expertise are really around the culture of the fire service. Thinking about how management and those company officers can really make sure that they're committed to safety and expressing it to their membership. So, we do a lot of organizational science and occupational health psychology. Helping leaders communicate with their rank and file about safety issues and injury prevention and mental health issues because work is hell. Let's face it, and the fire service, it's a very demanding job, so there's a lot that the FIRST Center does in this space.

We are also, like Dr. Moore-Merrell, data geeks, and we love data, and we eat it for breakfast. And so, we do a lot of injury data, mental health assessments. We are not the folks who do cancer treatments or prevention. We don't do anything with fire suppression tactics or PPE or burning buildings. We are more of the social scientists in the fire service research space, and we know all the other great researchers that are out there, so if for some reason you come to the FIRST Center, and you're asking something that we can't do, we will certainly connect you with a researcher who does.

But the final thing I'd say about the FIRST Center, Teresa, is that we have a summer program called the Fire Fellowship where we train the next generation of fire service researchers to make sure that the FIRST Center is always an entity that the fire service knows will be there for them and can handle whatever research issues they want to bring up. And so, DEI is something that came out of those conversations with the fire and rescue service and now is a prominent part of our portfolio.

Teresa Neal

Is there anything else you would like to add today before we wrap this up?

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

Sure, I think I would just like to reiterate for everyone listening: It's a journey; we're all on it. None of us are experts. We all have -isms. Every single one of us. And we have to acknowledge those, see how we can learn in that space and realize that in so doing, we create a family in the fire service that is unassailable; that responds as a team when we are called; and is seen by the community as this collective resource that supports our public safety, our public health, our community wellbeing, our reduction of risks in the community.

You need a cohesive team to respond to that. And this is one of the last flourishes that the fire service needs to deal with, and I applaud the Metro Chiefs for doing it because race, for example, has been like the third rail of the fire service in my research career. Don't talk about it. Don't ask about it. It's like talking about shifts. Don't talk about it. We're talking about it, and I think from an industrial perspective, this is what I've always thought about the fire service. They're not afraid to look. They're not afraid to ask the hard questions, and that's why I really enjoy working with them and have committed my professional career to them.

Teresa Neal

Well, thank you, Dr. Taylor, for speaking with us today and for sharing your knowledge. And I — and I know that we'd love to have you back in the future so that you can give us an update. Like you said, we're always learning, and as we move forward, we'll learn even more and have more to share, so we look forward to having you back again.

Dr. Jennifer Taylor

It would be my pleasure. Thank you so much for the opportunity.

Teresa Neal

Thank you.

Thank you for listening to The USFA Podcast and thank you to our guest, Dr. Jennifer Taylor. Do you want to learn more about the FIRST Center and their research programs? Go to, or you can search for “Drexel FIRST.” We hope you enjoyed learning more about diversity, equity, and inclusion and how to start those important conversations.

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