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Richmond’s Firefighting Dilemma

My friend Eric is training (hard) to become a firefighter. He’s written a thoughtful post about Richmond’s peculiar affirmative action in the firefighting department:

Unfortunately, in their attempt to correct past issues, the local City of Richmond has been a blatant example of sexist/racist discrimination. They recently announced that they would only hire white males for their fire department if they could not fill all of their vacancies with women or minorities. At they most recent firefighting test that I was at, I did not see one candidate that wasn’t a white male. Not one. Of the six hundred or so candidates that routinely apply to local departments, I would venture to guess that there are less than 50 that aren’t white males. In response to this, Richmond stated that they would be willing to pay for the training of non-white male candidates if need be.

This seems pretty absurd (and potentially unsafe) to me. You’re not going to manufacture demand where none exists. You’ve got to do it through education, teaching girls and new Canadians that they can, if they want, become firefighters. Of course then there’s the vexing problem of the difficulty of the standardized tests for women, but that’s a different issue.

Here’s an article discussing Richmond’s announcement, which indicates that “there are only two women and fewer than 10 visible minorities among the 206 firefighters in the Vancouver suburban community.”

Of course, some of this is politics, in response to allegations of sexual harassment by former female firefighters. Eric finishes well:

Fire doesn’t care if you are black or white or how many testicles you have. When something goes wrong at a fire, being strong and fit, intelligent and skilled are all that matter. Its somehow a little bit ironic that my first personal exposure to institutionalized racism comes from the city of Richmond.

11 Responses to “Richmond’s Firefighting Dilemma”

  1. Andrea >> Become a Consultant Blog

    Where does it say that they will admit women and members of racial minorities who cannot meet the requirements of the job?

    Fields like firefighting have centuries of institutionized prejudice behind them. Richmond attempted to go on a non-quota system. But you can’t change an entire institution one person at a time. Hazing, harassment and other tactics are used to push the new person out. The only way to fight it and change the system is to go for a critical mass.

    It’s very difficult to change a military-like institution that depends on lockstep responses.

    I’ve had friends go into male-dominated fields like engineering, police work, sales and other fields. The harassment, “boys’ club” politics and discrimination they face is pretty bad — and that’s 30 or 40 years after women started making their ways into these fields. It took tons of scholarships to get women to go into those fields and there still isn’t the participation rate that you see among men.

    Even in my graduate school program, there were many men who resented being on teams with women, taking low marks from professors who were female, and having to coincide with “wimpy” male classmates.

    I don’t see any other way to change a system. The fire department has had years to change its ways.

  2. darren

    Andrea: “Where does it say that they will admit women and members of racial minorities who cannot meet the requirements of the job?”

    Who said that–me or Eric?

  3. Joe Clark

    Darren, do you think the only source of nonwhites is “new Canadians”? Kooky fun fact: Blacks have been in Canada since 1604.

  4. darren

    Joe: Yeah, I struggled briefly with that one. But my particular point in that paragraph was about education. If the non-Caucasians (the other term I was going to use) weren’t also new Canadians, then they had the same education that I had, and would have been taught that they can be whatever they want. I could have gone with “non-Caucasians”, but then I’d have been including all the second and third generation Iranian-, Chinese- and Japanese-Canadians that I grew up with.

    But maybe my point is lousy with regards to ethnic minorities and education, maybe that wouldn’t help normalize the ranks of Richmond firefighters?

  5. Joe Clark

    And you did say the policy was “potentially unsafe,” implying that the new hires would be unqualified.

    If you look at the history of Everyone But White Males in firefighting, even progressive cities like Toronto engage in jiggery-pokery like setting up fitness tests that only guys can pass but that no existing fireman, even the lard-arsed fat bastards, has to retake. Or choosing only white males from a candidate group who *all* scored well over 95% in *all* tests, including the discrimination-inducing personal interview. That sort of thing. (Actually, B.C. seems to be doing the converse there, doesn’t it?)

    Of course not a lot of women try out for firefighting in B.C. Why should they? Historically, they haven’t been welcome. Of course some people don’t give a damn, but others do. It takes a while to change that; cities like Minneapolis (16% female, comparable to female enrollments in engineering) have managed it.

  6. Celia

    I knew someone who spent years rising up in a male-dominated comapny, who hit a ceiling once she became pregnant. When she returned to work after having her baby, she found out they had changed her job description while she was away, demoting her in effect. She endured menial tasks and comments insinuating that it would be only a matter of time before she got pregnant again. After a year of this, she quit.

    It’s an unfortunate situation for your friend, but affirmative action is not institutionalized racism. If your friend is a white male, then I doubt he has experienced ANY form of institutionalized racism or discrimination, period.

    The Richmond Firefighting department needs to work on actively recruiting more females and minorities. If the vast majority of applicants are white males, then that says a LOT about what kind of environment the public views it as.

  7. Celia

    I want to add that organizations like the RCMP–another traditionally white, male-dominated organization–have in recent years actively been recruiting females and minorities. They’re not turning away qualified white male candidates, but they are trying to target women and minorities in their recruitment campaigns.

  8. darren

    Joe: Like I said, it’s a vexing issue. I don’t know enough about firefighting to:

    a) Verify or dismiss any of your claims. If you’ve got any sources, I’d love to read them.
    b) Evaluate whether the tests are discriminatory.

    The discrimination issue is solvable, obviously, because we’ve made good progress on this issue in other fields. Historically, women haven’t been welcome in nearly every field, but that’s changed (and continues to improve, I believe).

    I did find this article about the Minneapolis fire department. It comes from a biased source, obviously, but describes how women made in-roads into the department: education, promotion (meaning marketing, essentially) determination and modifications to the testing regime.

    I said “potentially unsafe” because I think affirmative action strategies like these may (not will) lead to reduced entrance criteria and evaluation.

  9. darren

    Celia: I agree that affirmative action isn’t necessarily institutionalized racism, and there are some cases where I support it. I don’t know enough about this case (I only know what Eric’s written) to say whether I would support it in this case. I also agree on the recruitment angle–I think that goes hand in hand with my education pitch.

  10. NB

    Perhaps if the Richmond Fire Dept learned how to behave properly and leave out all the macho BS, secret society/gang mentality that they really should have got out of their systems in high school then perhaps women might feel welcome applying and working a job that is hard and dangerous.
    Honestly it’s that simple. Shameful to see grown men behaving that way.

  11. Jimmy

    everyone knows that fire departments try intentionally to disuade minorities from applying, this is intentional it has always been seen as a job for white men! there are plenty of minority candidates I know plenty they just don’t want to hire them-if this controversy did not happen no changes would be happening in Richmond…makes me sick that a city as diverse as Richmond still has these types of people….even if they are fire fighters they are still susceptible to racism…they are not angels for sake-there are a plenty of dinosaurs on these departments who still try to pull the strings in the background and intimidate new hires into the status quo…….other departments in the area won’t be changing til something like this scandal makes them-bravo to the women who stepped forward! the true heroes

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