Diverse staffing can enhance cultural competency in emergency services

Practical skill and medical expertise are fundamental requirements for first responders. Now, emergency experts are realizing the impact cultural competency can have on saving lives in a community.

First responders are the cornerstone of the areas they serve. In the event of an emergency, firefighters, EMTs, law enforcement officers and other key players share the duty of not only saving lives, but working directly with local residents to create an overall safer environment. Cultural competency represents the idea that understanding the nuances of the different cultures and the backgrounds that make up a particular population better equips first responders to provide effective care.

Underrepresenting minorities disrupts communication

Cultural competency has gained significant traction in recent years as the demographics of the U.S. population continue to evolve. Consider that U.S. News and World Report, citing Census data, claimed that minorities comprise 50.2 percent of children under the age of five in 2014. According to the Brookings Institute, by 2044 over 50 percent of the population will be minorities.

Despite this significant demographic shift, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that minorities are underrepresented in key areas of emergency services. This creates a significant cultural gap between first responders and the people they must serve. With the exception of African-American police officers, all minorities represented an overall lower share of law enforcement, fire, and emergency response workers when compared to their percentage of the overall workforce.

Lack of representation gives these groups a feeling of detachment, which can lead to unintended consequences for first responders. EMS World cited a response to a car accident in Delaware in which, among those on the responding Christiana Hospital emergency team, only one paramedic spoke Spanish. Not only did the staff have to scramble to find a way to communicate clearly with any surviving individuals from the crash, but the lone Spanish-speaking paramedic at the time suddenly found himself responsible for having to convey sensitive news to family members in a different language.

Underrepresentation also impacts empathy, a primary component of conflict resolution. According to Mary Kendall Hope, absence of empathy can make a situation more volatile, especially when the affected individuals feel misunderstood. People may be less likely to cooperate with first responders, or even become violent.

When communication becomes a challenge, a response team’s efforts to provide care, establish safety, and foster positive relationships with the affected community is negatively impacted. A poorly translated phrase can interfere with medical treatment, put people in unnecessary danger, or even create unintended feelings of resentment if handling a difficult situation is perceived as disrespectful. By embracing and expanding the diversity in their own staffing, service to the communities they represent is strengthened.

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Promoting diverse teams improves community relations

Following a visit to a firehouse in Virginia, Labor Secretary Tom Perez suggested that first responders should do more to increase minority representation within their teams by stepping up minority hiring efforts. A study conducted for FEMA by the North Charleston Fire Department, however, found that 61 percent of fire departments had no diversity programs dedicated to the recruitment of minorities.

When staffing policies are more in concert with the diversity of the communities they represent, emergency response agencies help engender cultural understanding. More accurate representation of the community takes cultural concerns into consideration and increases situational awareness as a whole. Diverse staffing also presents opportunities for innovative thinking absent in a more homogenous organization. The combination of a familiar presence people can relate to and a different cultural viewpoint on volatile situations can help first responders defuse crises in many circumstances.

Diversity strengthen community bonds through the visibility of professionals at work. First responders and related staff often appear at activities such as inspections, fire drills, and educational events, as well as during an emergency. These encounters present the public with an opportunity to assess the people on the force. If they can identify with EMTs and firefighters on the scene, the community will view them as allies looking to protect them and be more likely to call them for help.

Cultural competency enables adaptability

Diversity is a priority interest. The Diversity Initiative from the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) promoted inclusivity and specific demographics to increase hires. In their guidance document, the IAFF highlighted several suggestions to help with targeted recruitment such as using language that will promote a message of inclusiveness, using minority and women recruiters, and clearly communicating the value of diversity in all messages.

Upon diversification, first responders can leverage involvement within the communities they serve. This can help integrate disadvantaged minorities into the emergency response infrastructure. The HHS has suggested that bringing in community partners to discuss cultural sentiments can help emergency response teams understand the ways that people work together.

In addition, first responders should consider working closely with the community through other means, such as advisory boards, to better adapt emergency responsiveness to cultural sensitivities. Diversity Matters, a consulting firm for first responders, suggested that when EMTs and firefighters integrate cultural norms from community leaders, they can effectively and sensitively handle emergency crises. This helps save lives, especially in a disaster situation.

For example, FEMA adapted to social attitudes in certain areas to benefit victims of Hurricane Iniki in Hawaii. When people refused to evacuate to shelters because of specific customs, the agency delivered tents and other supplies to help them survive the storm and its aftermath.

First responders have much to gain from incorporating a diverse staff. By increasing the number of minority EMTs, firefighters, and law enforcement officers, there is a greater chance to connect with the communities they in which they work. More importantly, it can enable more favorable emergency responses that save lives and provide a greater appreciation for the work that first responders do.

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