Charlotte-Mecklenburg is hosting its second annual diversity, equity and inclusion conference, and the opening speaker is no stranger to breaking barriers.
Synthia Kearney never remembers seeing a female firefighter when she was growing up, but today she is the first female battalion chief for the Gastonia Fire Department.
Kearney has had a remarkable journey to where she is today.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she was a special agent with the United States Secret Service for four years before transferring to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
“After my second daughter was born I became a stay at home mom for three years,” she said. “When I financially had to go back to work I decided to do what I had always wanted to do and at 35 years old, I applied and passed the physical agility test and got hired as a Gastonia Firefighter.”
The organizers of the conference are bringing together a diverse group of people and presenters who are subject matter experts in their respective fields.
As part of this conference, they will explore ways to break down both organizational and personal barriers that relate to diversity and inclusion to fully identify obstacles to both organizational and personal success.
“This conference is very important for a lot of reasons,” said Kearney. “It is important for all of us to look at the fact that there are biases in the world. There are barriers and we don’t often want to tackle those hard issues.”
The low numbers in diversity in the fire department are apparent.
The National Fire Protection Association estimates there are 1,115,000 career and volunteer firefighters in the United States, and only 8% are female.
“If you have a heart to serve then don’t let that stop you, but then you be the one, you be the example for someone else,” she said.
Those low numbers nationally didn’t stop Kearney from moving forward with the Gastonia Fire Department.
In 2006, she placed in the top spot for her fire captain exam and became Gastonia Fire Department’s first female fire captain.
Six years later in 2012, Kearney broke through the ceiling again, and became the first female battalion chief for the Gastonia Fire Department.
As the population grows in our area, Kearney believes there is a great need for the evolution of the firehouse to diversify its workforce.
“Anyone who is in this kind of job has a heart to help and make a difference,” she said. “I think it’s important for people who have that kind of heart to also take a look at some areas where we can improve because the more you mirror your community the more trust your community will have in you.”
Organizers want to advance the education, understanding, and acceptance of differences in public safety, the public sector and the community while creating an environment that is inclusive.
While race and gender demographics are part of the dialogue, the conference will promote a multifaceted discussion including recruitment, legal issues, cultural diversity, and human relations.
The conference is hosted by Charlotte Fire Department, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, MEDIC and Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.
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