Chatham-Kent's fire chief wants diversity on his crew and he wants it now

Chatham-Kent's fire chief wants diversity on his crew and he wants it now
CBC News

"When I picture myself on a fire department, when I put on my helmet and my coat you can't tell if I'm a girl or a guy." - Courtney Bell, firefighting student at Lambton College

Before recruitment begins for a new batch of fire fighters in Chatham-Kent, Ont. this year, Chief of Fire and Emergency Services, Bob Crawford, is dedicated to getting a message out to the public — he wants diversity on his crew.

"We're really serious about this. I'm not trying to tick a box off on some checklist," he said. "We firmly believe that the strength of the team is improved as we improve our diversity. We're focused on this and we're setting out to make that change."

The fire service has worked hard to attract and retain employees of a diverse background, but Crawford said it's been a challenge. And for him, it's just not enough.

"We realize that talking about things is one thing, it's the doing that really counts," he said. "We want to try to find a way to reach the public and encourage people that may have not been represented in the past."

Female fighters

Part of that diversity includes having a more gender-balanced force. There are about 400 full and part-time firefighters on Crawford's team, he said, and in total there are about 17 females.

"Historically the job was almost entirely men. Males and generally of Caucasian descent," said Crawford.

"It's so male-dominated and I could see women be really intimidated by that," said Courtney Bell, a firefighter-in-training at Lambton College in Sarnia.

Bell said her program is about 30 per cent female, which is unusually high compared to previous years. She said it can be difficult at times with so few women around her, but she won't let that stop her from pushing forward toward a career she's passionate about.

"When I picture myself on a fire department, when I put on my helmet and my coat you can't tell if I'm a girl or a guy," she said.

"I train so that you can't tell if I'm weaker or not as good as the guy. Once the fire is rolling and our helmets and our coats are on we're all just family. It doesn't matter — my age, my gender, my race, anything like that."

Reaching out to new people

Bell became interested in firefighting after a week-long training course geared to women.

It's one of many community outreach initiatives and partnerships that  Crawford touts as an essential recruitment strategy when it comes to reaching new groups of people. He visits Lambton and St. Clair colleges regularly to check in with students and the programs, but he said the buck doesn't stop there when it comes to attracting more people.

"If we continue to do what we've done in the past will continue to get the same results in the future," said Crawford, explaining that traditional ways of recruitment are not attracting the diversity he would like to see on the force.

"I think we need to talk to those that are considered maybe in the fringe. People that are facing barriers — economic barriers, financial barriers, and other types of barriers to getting recruited and employed," he said.

Crawford's ideal crew

The fire chief is nostalgic for his time spent in Toronto in the 1970s, when he joined his first fire crew.

Crawford said he worked with carpenters, electricians, and a variety of people with different skill sets on his crew. And for a service that gets a variety of calls — from water rescues to medical incidents — skills are what counts.

"Quite often what we're dealing with are intellectual problems that you need people to think and be able to reason in order to resolve the issues that we face in an emergency," he said.

"I hope to replicate that type of deep bench of skills that we can bring to bear when people call 911."

'It's the right thing to do'

Chatham-Kent's fire department is "holding off" on recruitment this year until they feel the message is really out there, said Crawford. He's set on reaching out to newcomers to the country to show them that they can have a place on his team.

"I think we need to give opportunities to people," said Crawford.

"I think our country is built on working hard and getting yourself into a better position and I think the people I'm talking about are primed and ready. What they need is a welcoming workplace to come to and we want to present that.

It's important to Crawford that the firefighters working in his community look like that community. He recognizes that incoming groups "brought strengths in wonderful ways" to the country, and they can for his team, too.

"I also think that this is the right thing to do ... not everybody is a fan of diversity but this is Canada. Diversity can make this a wonderful place to live."

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