Where We Stand On Issues

Where We Stand

Why does it matter? Diversity goals are set and stated in the Austin Fire Department’s business and strategic plans. Making progress toward the stated diversity benchmarks in AFD has not shown productive results in over 30 years. After the consent decree in 1977 there were 52 African American Firefighters, today as we approach 2020 there has not been much progress. This sends a message to the citizens of Austin that diversity is not important or a goal of AFD. The negative image affects how AFD members are viewed as well in the community it serves. Diversity matters in the civilian sector.

What is diversity?
What do we mean when we speak of diversity? Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Compliance Office offers one definition:

“Diversity refers to human qualities that are different from our own and those of groups to which we belong; but that are manifested in other individuals and groups. Dimensions of diversity include but are not limited to: age, ethnicity, gender, physical abilities/qualities, race, sexual orientation, educational background, geographic location, income, marital status, military experience, parental status, religious beliefs, work experience, and job classification.”

Diversity as a concept focuses on a broader set of qualities than race and gender. In the context of the workplace, valuing diversity means creating a workplace that respects and includes differences, recognizing the unique contributions that individuals with many types of differences can make, and creating a work environment that maximizes the potential of all employees.

Diversity is also about having the long term goal that the city public safety departments should generally reflect the population of the city it serves in all its dimensions.

Diversity is broader than affirmative action and is voluntary (i.e., it is not “strictly necessary” to incorporate diversity concepts in order to meet federal requirements). Emphasizing diversity moves a department beyond considerations of only race and gender in its efforts to achieve an inclusive work environment.

While affirmative action and equal employment opportunity focus on employment practices, the concept of diversity extends to the work environment, including individual attitudes and behaviors. Yet diversity is related to affirmative action and equal employment opportunity, as there is a direct relationship between individual attitudes and behaviors, and employment practices. Diversity workshops can help managers learn a variety of options to enhance diversity, and to understand how to consistently apply fair employment practices and procedures.

Actions that promote diversity for a department are those that lead to a work environment that maximizes the potential of all employees while acknowledging their unique contributions and differences.

Why is diversity important?

When a building goes up in flames, rational people don’t care about the race of the firefighters who drag them to safety. Competence is all that matters. With that said, it doesn’t mean race should be ignored. Nor should an emphasis on competence be an excuse for failing to take reasonable steps to increase the number of minority firefighters in a fire department.

While a raging fire knows no color, the taxpayers and residents of a city do.

Tax-payers ought to believe that they and people who look like them, are a part of the tapestry of the city. In public service, the number of firefighters should reflect the changing face of the community it serves.

Educating officers and firefighters on how to work effectively in a diverse environment helps a department prevent discrimination and promote inclusiveness. There is evidence that managing a diverse work force well can contribute to increased productivity. It can enhance the organization’s responsiveness to an increasingly diverse world of customers, improve relations with the surrounding community, increase the organization’s ability to cope with change, and expand the creativity of the organization.

Good management of a diverse work force can increase productivity and enhance a department’s ability to maneuver in an increasingly complex and diverse environment.

“The best person for the job” is a phrase that is used to ignore and devalue diversity. There is nothing wrong with wanting the best person for a job, but does that mean that we have to ignore diversity and the importance and benefits of it? Does that statement mean that we ignore the goals and wants of the community we serve? Does that mean that we ignore what has been proven to be an asset to our country and any organization that embraces diversity? Does that mean we ignore the city’s and our department’s diversity goals? The answer is no! It is possible to achieve diversity goals while going for the best person for a job. The Reflect Initiative does just that. It achieves diversity goals while ensuring that high standards are met for our firefighters.

The ” Reflect Initiative” is a suggested step in the direction of meeting diversity goals and what was submitted to AFD, Local 975, and city officials to solicit recognition and assistance concerning this issue in March of 2007.

In an effort to reach the diversity goal of AFD and the city the following Reflect Initiative Implementation Plan has been proposed. This proposal is an attempt to keep standards high and not discriminate against any race. To proposal is an attempt to address the effects of despaired impact against groups that have low numbers that apply for employment with AFD.

We are not sure if Local 975’s Executive Board has shared this with it’s members or has considered supporting the proposal openly, but the IAFF has this to say about working with Affinity groups like AAAFFA:

“Minority organizations within a fire department are the greatest resource in building diversity… An affinity organization or constituency group’s goal is to promote and support its members. It is crucial that relationships between affinity organizations and the local be strengthened, both for mutual aid and as a service to members. Affinity members can provide crucial advice when creating and implementing a targeted recruitment program. Essentially, an alliance is created where both parties assist one another towards a common goal.”

The relationship of diversity, equal employment opportunity, and affirmative action
Although equal employment opportunity, diversity, and affirmative action are all different, they are interrelated. (See a Comparison of Diversity, EEO and AA Chart.) Each is directed toward achieving equal opportunity in the workplace. Diversity and affirmative action each broaden the concept of equal employment opportunity in different ways. Diversity, equal employment opportunity, and affirmative action together will provide a strong foundation for the Austin Fire Department’s efforts to achieve a fair and inclusive workplace. Here is an article regarding attempts at diversity here in Austin.

Equal employment opportunity
Equal employment opportunity is the core concept that unifies diversity and affirmative action efforts; that everyone should have equal access to employment opportunities. The City of Austin and the Austin Fire Department is supposed to adhere to state and federal equal employment opportunity laws, which prohibit discrimination based on a variety of characteristics. In addition to race and sex, these characteristics include: color, national origin, religion, physical or mental ability, medical condition (cancer-related), ancestry, marital status, age, sexual orientation, status as a covered veteran, and on the basis of citizenship.

Affirmative action
Affirmative action was developed because of the need to take “affirmative action” to begin to reverse historic patterns of employment discrimination against minorities and women.

Federal regulations require the use of race, ethnicity, or sex in limited circumstances, such as when analyzing the work force to identify areas of underutilization of minorities and women, and establishing goals in affirmative action plans on that basis. When goals exist, the City of Austin and the Austin Fire Department should undertake targeted recruitment efforts to ensure that underutilized minorities and women are represented in the applicant pool.

Fairness vs. equal treatment
Many people think that “fairness” means “treating everyone the same.” How well does treating everyone the same work for a diverse staff? For example, when employees have limited English language skills or reading proficiency, even though that limit might not impair their ability to do their jobs, transmitting important information through complicated memorandums might not be an effective way of communicating with them. While distributing such memos to all staff is “treating everyone the same,” this approach may not communicate essential information to everyone who receives them. It is easy to see how a staff member who missed out on essential information might feel that the communication process was “unfair.” A similar effect takes place when Battalion Chiefs disseminated important business information through chiefs notes session with their own personal biased spin on it.

A communication process or technique that takes account of the diverse opinions of various issues among the staff might require extra time  or effort to make certain that everyone understands important information. Such efforts on the part of supervisors and managers should be supported and rewarded as good management practices for working with a diverse staff.

What do we want
We want what the citizens of Austin, the city manager, and our city council want when it comes to diversity and demographic representation of the city in our public service departments, specifically in the Austin Fire Department. We also want the best person for the job in a department that is diverse and reflects the community it serves. This is a problem that has been present for over 50 years with very little action to address it. Reasons for the slow progress are no doubt complex, but it’s hard to believe that minorities aren’t interested in these jobs or lack the intellect and physical ability to fight fires. The most recent long range attempts will take another 50 years to possibly get our numbers where they need to be.

We need to stop the self inflicted wounds (See image below) we are doing to ourselves in the fire service by ignoring diversity goals.