Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on May 2, 2023.

TOP: Black FDNY firefighters prepare for an African American Day parade in Harlem. Black and Hispanic members make up about 20 percent of the department’s uniformed firefighters, while residents of those groups comprise nearly 40 percent of the city’s population. GETTY



Leaning In

In recent years, diversity, equity, and inclusion have become priorities—and buzzwords—for fire chiefs and government agencies across the country. Are these efforts achieving results? What does success even look like? We ask Kwame Cooper, FDNY's new diversity and inclusion officer.


In 2007, the federal government sued the New York City Fire Department (FDNY)—the world’s largest fire department, located in perhaps the world’s most diverse and cosmopolitan city—for what it said were discriminatory practices.

The government, along with FDNY’s Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of Black firefighters, alleged that two civil service tests used by FDNY to hire entry-level firefighters were biased against Black and Hispanic applicants. A settlement in the case, reached in 2014, stipulated that FDNY change the flawed exams, pay nearly $100 million to those impacted, and increase its efforts to recruit underrepresented groups and women. To oversee these tasks, the department created a new position: chief diversity and inclusion officer, reporting directly to the FDNY commissioner.
Last November, FDNY hired Kwame Cooper to take over as its latest diversity chief, the third person to hold the title. Aside from carrying out the settlement’s terms, his primary role at FDNY will be “to make sure that no biases exist in our system—diversity isn’t just about numbers, it’s understanding to what extent your organization may be perpetuating a bias that the organization may not even be aware of,” Cooper told NFPA Journal in a wide-ranging interview.
Cooper takes the helm as diversity chief at FDNY at a key moment. Attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues has grown dramatically in recent years, and has become a priority in firehouses, universities, corporate boardrooms, and governments around the world. Cooper, who also sits on the Board of Directors at NFPA, is well-versed in the subject; after nearly four decades as a firefighter, officer, and later an assistant chief in the Los Angeles City Fire Department, he earned a PhD in leadership and organization development with an emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Cooper recently began working with Drexel University on a FEMA-funded project to create a toolkit to help fire chiefs build and promote a culture of DEI into their workplaces; research associated with the Drexel project suggests a need for more guidance. Surveys of members of the Metro Chiefs—a section of NFPA made up of fire chiefs from the largest departments in the country—about current DEI practices and challenges at their departments revealed that half of the big-city chiefs felt that their departments were not ready to make a change toward DEI. The chiefs listed similar challenges, including uncertainty about communicating DEI issues, a lack of viewpoints from underrepresented groups, conflicts between personal and organizational values, and job demands that make DEI a lower priority.
NFPA Journal recently talked with Cooper about the benefits and challenges of the fire service’s increasing emphasis on furthering DEI in its ranks and what success ultimately looks like. 

How have perceptions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the fire service evolved since you began your career in the 1980s? 
First of all, the topic is still evolving. But when I started in LA, a guy pulled me aside and told me three things: “We don’t talk about race, we don’t talk about religion, and we don’t talk about politics.” And I was like, cool. But in reality, that’s all we talk about in the fire service. We just don’t know how to do it in mixed company. What I’ve found over the years is that the racial groups would go to their own silos to talk about it. And many times they would come to different conclusions based on their experiences. And unless somebody in that firehouse or in that fire department is intentionally creating strategies on how to lead diversity, these dynamics could lead to conflicts, complaints, lawsuits, bullying, and even violence. 

You’ve been at your new job as FDNY’s diversity chief for a few months now. What were your first steps when you started? 
I laid out a plan to spend about 100 days understanding the culture of the organization. I’ve met with many people—the command staff, members of our fire and EMS staff, fire prevention civilians, fire marshals—to understand their lived experience of diversity in the FDNY. The individuals that I’ve met with have been absolutely amazing, and the conversations have been rich. These are crucial conversations, and many of them are around things that we don’t like to talk about in mixed company, by which I mean multiracial groups and/or groups of mixed gender. Those are tough conversations, but it’s been a very informative process. I will start meeting with community groups to ensure that we are not missing anything. It takes continual work. 

Kwame Cooper spent 38 years with the the Los Angeles City Fire Department before arriving at FDNY last November. (COURTESY KWAME COOPER)

The Metro Chiefs’ survey showed that half of them felt that their departments were not ready to fully embrace more DEI initiatives. Did that surprise you?
It doesn’t surprise me. If anything, I thought the number would’ve been higher when you look at the context of the country and the fire service. But I can appreciate my colleagues being honest about what they see as challenges. This is why Drexel University, under the leadership of Dr. Jennifer Taylor and members of her team, including me, are aiming to create a toolkit that will help chiefs answer a lot of these questions, and recommend strategies. I know that there are people who get paid a lot of money to consult with fire departments about this topic, but I believe that if we as fire chiefs lean in, we could fix it ourselves.

What do you mean by ‘leaning in’?
FDNY is an example of an organization that is leaning all the way in to change. It’s having these uncomfortable conversations. We are held accountable because we listen to and value the input of our affinity groups, which are made up of various underrepresented groups among FDNY’s 17,000 members. We value our labor organization’s input. We value what our political allies and community groups say to us. Under this administration, we have a commitment to create a system of DEI that perpetuates on its own, so that everyone can enjoy a good day at work without worrying about how someone’s going to treat them. 

Diversity, inclusion, and equity can be somewhat vague terms. What does DEI mean in practice?
In the simplest terms, diversity is just the ways people are different. We are talking about race, gender, and sexual orientation, but it’s also about how we are different with respect to our values, belief systems, religions, cultural practices, and celebrations. In the fire service, at a minimum we should be asking ourselves: To what extent does my department reflect the community that it serves with regard to race and gender? 
Equity is basically making sure that everyone who is a part of the team has what they need to succeed. There is no in-group of people with access to secret information that’s going to help it succeed in becoming a lieutenant or a captain or an officer. The department needs to provide equitable professional development resources to everyone, and may the best person win. 

Inclusion is also simple. If we are about to make a decision, we look around the room and see if the people who are impacted by that decision are part of the decision-making process. Do you have Black folks sitting there? Do you have White folks sitting there? Do you have Hispanic folks sitting there? Do you have women sitting there? These things become important because that inclusion strengthens the likelihood that the decision is being vetted properly. It’s a very intentional act. DEI isn’t just about creating a pleasant work environment—it has real impacts on the performance of fire departments. 

How does greater DEI impact performance?  
When I was a young firefighter in LA, I was working at a fire station that was in a predominantly Black neighborhood. That fire station was considered pretty diverse for the time; we had six or seven Black firefighters out of 38 people. One day, we get a call for a room and contents fire in this garden-level apartment where an older Black woman lived. We go in, put the fire out, it’s all good. When we were finished, the captain, who happened to be a White guy insensitive to race, told us, “We don’t need to do a big overhaul, just scrape the burnt stuff away from the walls and let them hire somebody to come and clean it up.” But that’s not how we did things for the White folks. The brothers looked around and we said, “Nope, we going to give Mrs. Sally the same level of service in South Central that we will give Mrs. Whoever, who happens to be White in a rich neighborhood.” We did the overhaul, as we should have. That would not have happened if we didn’t have that diversity on the rig. 
That’s one example of how the level and quality of service goes up with DEI. You can look at achieving diversity as a business proposition, as a way to improve the quality of our service. 

Why do you think focus on DEI has gained so much momentum? 
Because we are a reflection of the political society of the United States. Politics in this country have really heated up since about 2014. The divide in this country along race and gender has become more swollen in a way that it is now impacting the work environment, and fire chiefs didn’t have a strategy for how to deal with this discourse. We don’t want this to bleed over into the fireground or erode trust among members on the team. It’s a problem for every chief.

How do fire service leaders know when they’re on the right track? What does DEI success look like?
I’ll answer that with three questions for a fire chief. One is, if you don’t have diversity, why? Maybe the chief doesn’t care about it, or has the attitude, “May the best person win and don’t bother me.” But can they prove that’s really how things are? Have they done an assessment of the overall health of their organization? Have they asked members about their lived experience, or if someone was able to get something they didn’t particularly deserve because of their last name or their race or their gender? To answer that you have to do a self-assessment and ask, “Where are we sick as an organization? Where are the gaps? Where are we out of balance? What could we do better?”
The second question is: If you do have diversity, how do you lead it? One size does not fit all. That’s why it’s important to collaborate with community partners, to lean in and experiment.

The last question is: If you have diversity, how do you sustain it? Is it just a one-off? Have you fixed it? Does your department represent the community so now you don’t have any work left to do? No. You need to continue to monitor that situation to ensure that the culture of the organization doesn’t eat those policies for breakfast and cause the organization to revert to practices that got you here in the first place.

So instead of trying to attain a goal and then being done with it, you’re saying that it’s best to ask yourself these questions and assess your organization on an ongoing basis?
Yes. We’re not treating this as a means to an end. This is an organic, living thing that we’re doing as fire service leaders. It’s about understanding the systems in your organization. It’s about doing your own assessment so someone doesn’t sue you because there is an illness in the department that you didn’t know about and didn’t do anything about. My advocacy is built around being proactive. 

What other things are important for building and sustaining DEI? 
One critical piece is the value of the company officer in the workplace. The fire service’s organizational structure is command-and-control from the fire commissioner on down to the EMS stations and firehouses. And when it’s an emergency, we rely on that company officer and that EMS supervisor to lead the team, deliver the work, get it done, do it safely, then go back home, critique it, and get ready for the next call. And we are really good at that. But when it comes to nonemergency stuff, in my opinion, we don’t invest enough in the captains and lieutenants and battalion chiefs and EMS supervisors in terms of their leadership development and acumen. In some cases, this is a result of our promotional systems. But we still have a responsibility to make sure that we are teaching our captains the strategies to lead, to socialize people, and to prepare for resistance to change. Investing in that will cut down on the likelihood that something small grows until it blows up and now you’re on the front page of The New York Times.

What advice can you can offer fire service leaders who want to move the needle on DEI issues but aren’t sure where to start?  
Dr. Carl Holmes was a very close and dear friend. He’s deceased now, but he’s in my head all the time. He was a pioneer in fighting segregation in the Oklahoma City Fire Department. One of the things he would say is, if you want to change an organization, you gotta speed it up. You gotta take that organization and just spin it as fast as you can to make sure that you’re getting to and prioritizing the things that are going to support the initiatives you want, and it’s gonna sling off all of the mess.

You have to understand that resistance to change is going to occur, but there are strategies for resistance to change. I would say to fire chiefs and officers that it is important to be strategic and to be proactive. It’s critically important to make sure that everyone around the table who’s impacted by this conversation has a chance to have their say. And it’s important to make sure that we as fire service leaders are not waiting for something to happen.  

JESSE ROMAN is senior editor of NFPA Journal and producer of the NFPA Podcast. Top photograph: GETTY