Sound the Alarm: Why Do So Few African Americans Serve as Firefighters and Paramedics?

– Executive Summary

The demographics of the fire department workforce, including firefighters and paramedics, often do not reflect communities. Fire and emergency medical service (EMS) departments nationwide struggle to recruit and retain African American members. Even as society has become more of a melting pot of ethnicities, cultures, genders, and religions, the American fire service profession has not. This thesis looked to identify what factors support and inhibit the recruitment and retention of African American firefighters and paramedics in the United States and what can be done to change current practices.

The research identified systemic practices that date back to the inception of the fire service, such as racism, nepotism, the introduction of EMS, and the lack of understanding of other cultures, as the primary drivers of the homogenous makeup of the modern fire service. Socioeconomic woes that plague American society represent another force of oppression that creates many barriers related to African Americans being gainfully employed by the fire service. To change the narrative of this dilemma, the fire service must be intentional about acknowledging the disparities within the profession and capturing critical data that assist with exposing the problem so that timely interventions can be made.

This thesis relied on the cooperation of several metropolitan fire and EMS departments willing to share information about a topic that is not always easy to discuss. Each department provided aggregate data on pass/fail rates of candidates who sought EMS licensure; however, the data did not include pass/fail rates by ethnicity, which could have assisted in ascertaining whether the EMS licensure process has adversely affected one ethnic group more than another. The research for this thesis involved consulting open-source literature that identified the non-inclusive culture of the fire service, which mirrored society across eras and kept minorities away from the profession. In today’s fire service, many factors explain why African Americans do not become or stay employed as firefighters.

The terms race and ethnicity are often utilized interchangeably. Race is a social construct typically based on physical characteristics such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. Race is also used to categorize groups of people based on these physical characteristics. On the other hand, ethnicity is a broader concept that includes cultural factors such as language, religion, customs, and traditions. Ethnicity refers to a person’s cultural identity and heritage based on geography, origin, ancestry, and shared history.[1] This thesis focused on ethnicity in the fire service because it connotes shared group history and traits such as religion, language, and social identity.

Chapter II explains how diversity affects underserved communities and why the knowledge possessed by first responders about cultural behaviors and attitudes is essential when looking for ways to manage a crisis. When all stakeholders trust that their best interest is valued, the organization can learn and grow, dramatically diminishing knowledge gaps and improving a department’s recruitment and retention efforts.

Next, Chapter III explores the inception of the American fire service and the culture and issues faced by African Americans throughout history. It examines why many African Americans genuinely disliked what the fire service stood for in its early years and how years of toxic culture and bias could lead to a shortage of African Americans in the fire service profession. Three eras of the fire service are examined: the early years, the civil rights era, and the modern day. Chapter IV then identifies socioeconomic factors that may explain why so few African Americans serve as firefighters and paramedics in the United States.

Chapter V compares statistical and procedural data for three metropolitan cities and their fire and EMS departments, analyzing correlations between the first-time pass rates of departments’ emergency medical technician exams and the cities’ socioeconomic factors. Following this analysis, Chapter VI explores a seniority analysis conducted by the Memphis Fire Department (MFD) that examined the department’s attrition by members’ rank and years with the department. This analysis identifies gaps that might reduce competency and efficiency within the MFD, exposes areas of concern that might contribute to firefighters’ leaving the profession, and discusses interventions that have been or could be undertaken to reduce the attrition rate.

Chapter VII offers five recommendations for fire and EMS departments looking for ways to support recruiting and retaining various ethnicities in the fire service profession:

  1. All aspiring and current fire chiefs should attend Courageous Conversations workshops to better understand why so few African Americans serve in the American fire and EMS service. Workshops such as these provide the opportunity to listen and learn from others in the seminar who may offer different opinions and solutions relative to this disparity.
  2. Create a recruiting team of diverse individuals for fire and EMS departments to increase diversity within their departments and improve recruitment outcomes. Dedicating a team of full-time resources specifically to recruiting fire and EMS departments could enhance their recruitment outcomes and increase the number of qualified candidates representing the community.
  3. Consider an asset pipeline program to recruit people of different ethnicities. Establishing these programs within the high schools and colleges of underserved communities would generate mentoring and educational opportunities for youth.
  4. Incorporate Accuplacer-type testing for prospective fire recruit candidates to evaluate the likelihood they will successfully pass rigorous EMS examinations that are now commonplace in the profession. The fire and EMS department, along with high schools and colleges, should know the types of questions that will be asked of the candidate, so it can instruct them in how to prepare for the exam.
  5. To reduce the socioeconomic factors that plague the African American community, involve external stakeholders who can create opportunities for our youth through legislation, pathway programs, funding, better schools, and mentoring opportunities that lead them away from the crime, violence, and physical and mental traumas experienced when growing up in poverty.

[1] “Ethnicity vs. Race,” Diffen, accessed March 3, 2023, https://www.diffen.com/difference/‌Ethnicity_‌vs_Race.

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