Promising Practices for Increasing Diversity Among First Responders

Abby Miller, Sue Clery, Samantha Richardson, and Amelia Topper, Coffey Consulting, LLC
Samantha Lilly
Emma Hinkens
Michelle Yin

First responder fields—including law enforcement, firefighting, and emergency management services (EMS)—serve a crucial role in the safety and well-being of communities around the country. The potential benefits of increasing diversity and moving toward greater representation could also provide more secure and rewarding employment opportunities to historically underrepresented populations, thus having implications for local economic and workforce development.

In partnership with Coffey Consulting, LLC, AIR looked to conduct an exploratory study to identify promising practices that first responder agencies and organizations can leverage to increase the diversity of their workforces. Specifically, five sites were selected based on both the extent to which their first responder workforce is representative of the local population, and their use of practices that align with the human resources literature as being effective for developing a diverse workforce.

Key Findings

1. Leadership: Cultivate a culture of diversity.

  • Departmental leadership sets the tone for an organizational culture of diversity by facilitating open dialogue with staff about the importance of diversity.
  • Departmental leadership at the sites visited encourage and provide support for population-specific employee support groups to help increase inclusion of underrepresented groups.
  • Local leaders at the departments visited also set the tone for diversity by hiring qualified diverse staff in leadership ranks to serve as role models.

2. Recruitment: Redirect resources towards a targeted approach.

  • The police sites visited hire population-specific liaisons with underrepresented characteristics or backgrounds (i.e., Hispanic, LGBT) to reach out to members of the community.
  • Departments visited for this study tailor their messaging and recruiting materials to underserved groups.

3. Hiring: Ensure a level playing field.

  • First responder departments may lose potentially valuable employees due to restrictive hiring procedures, such as particularly extensive background reviews.
  • In addition to the background review, departments lose applicants in various testing phases of the often lengthy hiring process.

4. Community Engagement: Tap into a diverse pipeline.

  • Engage with the community by offering classes, events, and presentations for citizens, some targeting specific populations in their languages.
  • Schools at the K-12 level provide opportunities for departments to make presentations about first responders to students and to help them learn more about the careers.
  • Third-party training for intensive, hands-on opportunities for female and non-White trainees and potential trainees to learn about and gain an understanding of first responder careers, receive training, prepare for exams, and build a network in the field.
  • Forming partnerships with local organizations and foundations that share an interest in a diverse first responder force.

From the literature review and the site visits conducted for this study, it is clear that some first responder departments are using creative and culturally sensitive strategies to further support diversity and inclusion. Departments and agencies must work toward institutionalizing diversity and inclusion efforts, and these efforts must become a part of the organization’s culture and daily business in order to be effective.