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Taking steps toward diversity at Wausau Fire Department

The Wausau Fire Department is making strides to becoming a more diverse place to work, but the fire department says it’s a challenge and some are voicing their concerns.
Published: Dec. 21, 2021 at 8:37 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The Wausau Fire Department is making strides to becoming a more diverse place to work, but the fire department says it’s a challenge and some are voicing their concerns.

About 12 percent of Wausau’s population is made up of Hmong Americans. That’s one of the largest populations in the state. The Wausau Fire Department doesn’t have any Hmong or Latino firefighters on staff, but Wausau Fire Chief Bob Barteck hopes to change that as soon as possible.

Working at the fire department is more than just fighting fires, it’s about saving lives. However, with the significant Hmong population in Marathon County, language barriers can be problematic during emergencies.

“Any time that we have the ability to speak languages with people that we don’t have paramedics or firefighters that can speak those languages, of course that’s going to be an assistance,” Barteck said.

Wausau isn’t the only department facing this issue. According to an article by Spectrum News 1 in March, there’s only two Hmong firefighters in the state of Wisconsin.

“We feel that we’d be a stronger team with a more diverse work force,” Barteck said.

Barteck said they’re simply not getting Hmong American applicants. To help change a field mostly dominated by white men, Barteck is working with the Hmong American Center.

“There needs to be some initiative that needs to be developed between and across the state or in the community here where we can further attract individuals from the Southeast Asian community,” Hmong American Center Executive Director Yee Leng Xiong said.

Xiong met with Barteck for the first time last week. He’s glad outreach is taking place, but hopes to see more connection from other departments.

“I’ll be very honest, at this time here, the only one that’s engaged with us is the Wausau Fire Department,” Xiong said.

He said the fire department attended the Wausau Hmong Festival for the first time this summer. Despite this, the Wausau Fire Department’s lack of diversity isn’t going unnoticed by the community.

“It’s really a sad situation that we’ve 45 years of opportunity pass us by,” from Laos to America Museum founder Jim Harris said.

Harris said there’s never been a Hmong Wausau firefighter. Inside his museum, he has a display showing various occupations held by Hmong Americans in Wausau.

“In this space I had a generic picture of a firefighter from another community and I really didn’t feel that was honest. I wanted young people who came through to look at this wall and to think I have options, unlimited,” Harris said.

Harris said he’s heard concerns from the Hmong community, and he wants the department to take a stronger approach. Barteck said it’s not for a lack of effort, the department currently has five openings.

“No matter where their background is or who they are, we’re interested in anyone that’s interested in becoming a servant with our department,” Barteck said.

After talking with all three men, they all agree it will take just one person to change and become the first Hmong Wausau firefighter to break that initial barrier.

NewsChannel 7 also reached out to the Wisconsin Rapids Fire Department and the Stevens Point Fire Department about their diversity recruitment efforts. At Wisconsin Rapids, they’re teaming up with Mid-State Technical College for a fire academy. They hope to see a diverse turn out through the program.

Stevens Point Fire Department said they have minorities on staff and are working with Stevens Point Area Senior High School to try to build diversity and overall recruitment.

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