The Cosumnes Fire Department’s 2021 fire academy class started training on March 8. Fire officials hope they will help diversify their department’s staff when they graduate.

They want the fire staff to ultimately represent the racial and ethnic diversity of the Elk Grove and Galt communities they serve.

This academy class reportedly has 13 Hispanics, nine whites, three women, two Asians, two Native Americans and one African American.

Cosumnes Fire Chief Felipe Rodriguez stressed the importance of having diverse personnel in the fire engines.

“That’s who the little boys and the little girls look up to and say, ‘This is what I want to do someday (and) I can be exactly like that person,’” he told the Cosumnes Community Services District (CSD) board during their March 3 meeting.

Rodriguez noted that he was 7 years old when he decided that he wanted to become a firefighter. The San Francisco native later served as a U.S. Navy corpsman before working for the Stockton, Oceanside and Folsom fire departments. He left his position as Folsom’s fire chief to lead the Cosumnes Fire Department last October.

“Looking up to the people who were there was so important,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez presented an update on his department’s work in attempting to diversify its personnel for the past three years. The fire staff is now predominantly male and white – whites comprise 70% of the 159-member personnel, and 96% of the staff is male, according to a CSD staff report.

In his presentation, the fire chief said that, if the demographics are combined for Elk Grove and Galt, then residents who live in the CSD’s service area are 35% white, 25% Asian, 21% Hispanic, 10% African American, 8% multiracial and 2% other.

Rodriguez detailed how their fire department’s demographics would change if the recruits graduate and join the 187-member personnel.

Rodriguez reported that the staff would be 65% white, 12% Hispanic, 7% multiracial, 4% Asian, 3% Native American, 1% African American, and 7% other ethnicities.

As for gender, the fire chief said that the number of women would slightly increase to 5%.

“A lot more work to do, most definitely,” he said about increasing the number of female staff. “But we’re moving in that direction.”

In 2017, Cosumnes Fire officials joined the Sacramento Regional Diversity Committee to improve efforts to recruit firefighters of diverse backgrounds. This group includes several fire agencies, as well as Cosumnes River College, the Elk Grove Unified School District and community organizations, such as the Greater Sacramento NAACP and La Familia.

“When we collectively have a vision of where we want to go ... it’s amazing to see the numbers follow that vision,” CSD Director Orlando Fuentes said.

In his report, Rodriguez combined the numbers of African American, Asian and Hispanic candidates who applied to join the Cosumnes fire academy program. He said they all represented 57% of applicants, which was an increase from 25% of candidates in 2018. When CSD Board President Jim Luttrell asked how many of the recent fire academy recruits are local, the fire chief replied that about 20 are from the Sacramento region and that eight were interns from Cosumnes River College’s firefighter program.

Rodriguez suggested ideas for attracting diverse applicants, such as a fire explorer program, preparation for the fire academy’s physical fitness testing, and the use of the Zoom teleconferencing application for applicants to tell more about themselves.

“This is about bringing people up,” Rodriguez said about the recruitment. “Anybody that wants to be a firefighter, whether you’re white, whether you’re black, Hispanic, Asian – it doesn’t matter; these are the majority of this community.”

CSD Director Jacyln Moreno mentioned that she wanted to be a firefighter when she was in high school.

“As a woman, I was discouraged from taking that route from many people because it wasn’t common back then for women to want to be in the fire service,” she recalled.

CSD Director Rod Brewer recalled growing up in the Central Valley town of Tulare when their local fire department hired Willard Epps, who was their first African American firefighter.

“A lot of youth of all ethnicities loved and revered Willard because he was someone who grew up in a similar upbringing and helped bring a lot of young men and women of all ethnicities into the fire service,” he said. “It helped inspire a new generation to reach back and be that shining example.”