To fight declining diversity in the fire and emergency services industry, the International Association of Fire Chiefs is working to develop new leaders from underrepresented populations.
In July, the International Association of Fire Chiefs will welcome the first class of fellows to its IAFC Diversity Executive Leadership Program (iDELP). Its goal: diversify the fire and emergency services workforce as well as national leadership.
“We have a real void of unrepresented groups in national leadership positions, and so one of the things we have wanted to do was to figure out how to get underrepresented groups positioned to move into the various national leadership positions in our organization, the federal government, other associations, and just generally at the top levels of fire and emergency services,” said IAFC CEO and Executive Director Mark W. Light, CAE.
iDELP, along with a companion program for women fire chiefs that launched recently, seeks to solve this diversity gap. The education aspect of the program is especially important “because for us in the public safety arena, there’s really no one place that people can go to learn how to get involved,” said Light. “And so most of the people who are involved at national-level issues have either just learned it on their own, or they’ve had mentors. And with not a lot of diversity at the top, there’s not a lot of people that can guide them.”
Overall, diversity within fire and emergency services is actually shrinking, Light explained. For every 20 African-American firefighters who retire, only one is hired. And industry women aren’t any better off, considering that there are only 47 women fire chiefs in the country.
Diversity is also an internal issue for IAFC. Once its female and Latino board members finish their terms this summer, the IAFC board will be composed of mostly older white men.
While IAFC hopes the program can diversify its own leadership, it also expects that iDELP will encourage and provide guidance for people from underrepresented groups to move into all higher leadership roles—from where they can then set an example for others.
“It lets people model, and other underrepresented groups see them on a national level and say, ‘I can be that; I want to do that,’” said Light.
IAFC received 43 applications for the first iDELP class, which is aimed at officers already in fire department leadership positions. The program will bring together the selected applicants for executive leadership programs, soft skills lessons on strategically working a room and building relationships, and sessions with associations and federal government agencies on the top issues in public safety.
Participants will also have opportunities to speak at IAFC conferences and to federal advisory boards and committees. In addition, they will help IAFC identify barriers and accompanying solutions to diversity, as well as provide feedback for improving the iDELP program.
“We have a duty to our members to try to give them the best leadership that we can,” said Light. “And I think that we miss a lot if we don’t have diversity at the table because each person brings a different perspective, and we often let things run right by us if we don’t have those different perspectives.”