By Alain Normand
I attended a discussion the other day about bringing diversity into the fire department. The issue is that firefighters are usually white males and not necessarily representative of the fabric of our community. However, in trying to recruit people with more diversity, Fire Departments encounter huge difficulties. Females need to go through the same testing requirements as male in terms of physical endurance and strength. Although there are women with those abilities – some of those women have ten times my endurance – there are still a lot fewer than men and not all of them want to be firefighters. When it comes to ethnic groups, in speaking with young people, especially from new immigrant families, many of the parents came to Canada because they wanted their children to become doctors and lawyers, not firefighters. So when fire is trying to recruit from these groups, the rate of success is extremely low.
In the Emergency Management field, looking back at the 1990s, the only people that had an inkling about emergency management were police, fire, paramedics and military personnel. They were also male, Caucasian, usually retired and over 50 years old. Move forward to today and diversity comes into play. I didn’t do a study and I don’t have statistics but I look at the mix when I attend workshops and seminars and I see it. There are probably as many females as males. Although there is still a certain preponderance of Caucasian people, there are people of every colours and shades. As well, the average age of the professionals in emergency management has dropped tremendously with the arrival of young people choosing emergency management as their career paths right out of high school.
Not only are we seeing this mix, but we are seeing a lot of people who might have been dismissed in the past, rise up and take the lead. The number of women CEMCs who lead the way in their communities is amazing. I see so many rising stars in emergency management that young people can look up to as models. I won’t name anyone here because I didn’t ask their permission, but look at the female CEMCs in the middle to large communities in the GTA and Golden Horseshoe. Look at the ones in the provincial ministries, including EMO/OFMEM. Those women are showing the way for the coming generations. I regularly speak about them to my students to spur them on. My admiration goes to them, especially the first ones that joined a then male dominated field and forged their career through the hurdles.
The age is also an important factor. My own team in Brampton is young, but they form a dynamic, eager, and driven group of professionals. My good friend James Kilgour – no I didn’t ask his permission, sorry James – is now Director for the Office of Emergency Management for Toronto, the largest city in Canada. He’s not a young adult anymore but he is relatively young for such a prestigious position. I was ecstatic when hearing of his promotion. I see other young people at the head of the emergency management and/or business continuity programs for provincial ministries, utilities consortium, and private organizations.
Particularly in this age of such rapid changes, we need people that will adapt quickly, people technologically savvy, and open to new ideas, concepts, tools and methods. You know the saying: you can’t teach an old dog new trick. So people of my generation have a bit more difficulty in coping with those changes. I rely on the young people on my team to keep me electronically tuned.
I also see variety when it comes to ethnic groups. Maybe we still have a bit of work to do on that side, but we are on the right track. In my opinion, the ethnic diversity will become even more important as
we continue to receive immigrants from all parts of the world bringing with them not only a variety of languages, but also cultural, religious, and values-based diversity. As emergency managers, we need to be ready to cater to their needs.
As an example, the Red Cross has standards when it comes to setting up an evacuation centre. The standard is based on establishing rows of cots, with each cot having an exact number of square feet allocation, all of them lined up with a numbering system by row and columns. This has worked well generally but we are seeing changes. As the Canadian mosaic changes, we are moving from an average family of 4 members to large family clusters. When they arrive at a shelter, they want to stick together. So they move cots around to provide an area where 8 to 10 people can have cots, in a more circular or rectangular arrangements so they can sit on the cots and face each other. We need to be flexible and ready to adapt the standard to allow this to happen. Those people also have different diets and food preparation practices. They may have a need for special religious accommodations, and so on.
These are just a few examples, but I am sure many of you will have similar experiences when dealing with other cultures. That insight into changing our policies and protocols will be easier if the people making those changes are members of those communities in the first place. If at least, we can communicate with the constituents under our care in order to understand their needs, we will be better off. But who better than the people who are already part of that culture to hold those discussion and help adapt our methods.
It is comforting to know that our industry is a very inclusive one. We need to continue promoting this. We need to welcome the minority groups into emergency management and make them a part of our own professional community.
There may be less of us than doctors and lawyers, but our profession is just as important. Let’s enhance it with more diversity. We’ve come a long way but we’re not done.