A lack of racial diversity within EMS and fire agencies has been a consistent issue.
As the United States continues to grapple with social and racial inequities in the workplace, it’s important to acknowledge how few minorities represent the EMS profession, and the need to increase diversity in this workforce.
“The proportion of EMS professionals identifying as Black remained near 5% among EMTs and 3% among paramedics,” according to a 2019 study published in the journal Prehospital Emergency Care, which tracked race and gender of EMS providers between 2008 and 2017. “The proportion of newly-certified Hispanic EMS professionals rose from 10% to 13% among EMTs and from 6% to 10% among paramedics.”
In order to gain perspective on the matter, we caught up with I. David Daniels, former deputy fire chief of Richmond, Va.
Daniels was among the U.S.-based fire officials featured in “United In Service,” a film produced by Firefighter Resource Network, to discuss the lack of diversity and inclusion in the profession. He said the issue has systemic roots dating back for decades.
“Because Richard Nixon started affirmative action, that’s how I got hired in Seattle,” he said. “But the testing system was not written in a way for me to be successful. I got in as an alternate and was hired as an affirmative action candidate.”
Diversity and inclusiveness requires skill building
A lack of diversity in fire and EMS has several duplicitous layers. Daniels said it partly stems from the stringent testing criteria required of the profession — something he says excludes certain groups of people, by design. Testing is not inclusive to people of color, he said, or those from the urban areas scattered across the U.S.
“The (EMS/fire) system was not designed with people like me in mind,” Daniels said. “It was based on military, ex-Vietnam vets and white males.”
When Daniels began working in the profession, he landed a job because he had worked in construction during high school. Since he knew how to operate a chainsaw, Daniels had a skill set that the fire department found valuable. It was enough to give Daniels an edge over other cadets.
“Depending on where you live, it has to do with what you are exposed to,” Daniels said. “If you are a cadet or a volunteer firefighter, you would have more exposure to those necessary skills or have a way to learn them.”
In his case, Daniels had the kind of job that exposed him to some of the right skills.
However, the lack of skill building opportunities for people of color still exists today, Daniels said. This, in turn, creates a two-fold problem. Firstly, people of color who might want jobs in EMS or fire might not be eligible based on their skills. Secondly, fire departments and EMS providers have a significantly smaller applicant pool from which to recruit minorities.
Rooting out bias
Unconscious, or implicit, bias is inherent in our society. By definition, when people have bias, they tend to favor one person or group of people over another. According to the Society of Human Resource Management, bias contributes to racism, sexism and ageism in the workplace.
EMS and fire administrators can improve the diversity of their workforce by developing awareness around cultural and organizational bias. This includes the ranks of leadership down to the staff. While the road to change is often a long one, recognizing bias constitutes an important first step.
As someone with an HR educational background, Daniels said bias can go unseen in the recruiting and hiring process. He said that is why it’s critical to acknowledge those entry points in any organization. Otherwise, it can be difficult to fix the problem.
“There are a lot of people making hiring decisions in EMS who know nothing about HR, and they don’t know how to write a job description or do a risk assessment of a body of work that is not biased,” he said.
This is not a criticism, according to Daniels, but rather something to consider within hiring guidelines and best practices.
In 1967, Freedom House became the first ambulance service to give Black paramedics a job in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.
They were known as Freedom House Ambulance Service. Their unit came about at the intersection of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s and ambulance transport services gaining a place in the spotlight.
Before Freedom House made its debut, local police transported injured patients to nearby hospitals, according to a trailer for the documentary “Freedom House Street Saviors.”
But a real need for medical transport existed in Black communities, and they needed people willing to take the job. Freedom House emerged out of a partnership between Presbyterian and Mercy hospitals in Pittsburgh, and U.S.-based Freedom House, a non-governmental advocacy organization that conducts research on democracy, freedom and human rights.
Freedom House took the reins of responsibility to train and recruit Black men. These trainees then became pioneers, working as the first medical technicians we know today.