Taking steps towards diversity at the Wausau fire department

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WAUSAU, Wisconsin (WSAW) – The Wausau Fire Department is making strides to become a more diverse place to work, but the Fire Department says it’s a challenge and some are voicing concerns.

About 12% of Wausau’s population is made up of Hmong Americans. It is one of the largest populations in the state. The Wausau Fire Department does not have Hmong or Latino firefighters on staff, but Wausau Fire Chief Bob Barteck is hoping to change that as soon as possible.

Working in the fire department is more than fighting fires, it’s saving lives. However, with the large Hmong population in Marathon County, language barriers can be problematic in an emergency.

“Anytime we have the opportunity to speak languages ​​with people we don’t have paramedics or firefighters who can speak those languages, of course that’s going to be of help,” Barteck said.

Wausau is not the only department facing this problem. According to a Spectrum News 1 article in March, there are only two Hmong firefighters in the state of Wisconsin.

“We think we would be a stronger team with a more diverse workforce,” Barteck said.

Barteck said they just weren’t getting any American Hmong candidates. To help change an area dominated by white males, Barteck is working with the Hmong American Center.

“There must be an initiative that needs to be developed between and across the state or in the community here where we can attract more individuals from the Southeast Asian community,” said Yee Leng Xiong, director executive of the Hmong American Center.

Xiong first met Barteck last week. He is happy that the outreach is taking place, but hopes to see more connections from other departments.

“I’m going to be very honest, right now here the only one that’s engaged with us is the Wausau Fire Department,” Xiong said.

He said firefighters attended the Wausau Hmong festival for the first time this summer. Despite this, the lack of diversity in the Wausau Fire Department does not go unnoticed by the community.

“It is truly a sad situation that we have let 45 years of opportunity pass by,” said Jim Harris, founder of the Laos to America Museum.

Harris said there had never been a Hmong Wausau firefighter. Inside his museum, he has an exhibition showing various occupations carried out by Hmong Americans in Wausau.

“In that space, I had a generic photo of a firefighter from another community and I really didn’t feel like it was being honest. I wanted the kids who’ve been there to look at that wall and think I have limitless options, ”Harris said.

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

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

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

NewsChannel 7 has also reached out to the Wisconsin Rapids Fire Department and the Stevens Point Fire Department about their diversity recruiting efforts. In Wisconsin Rapids, they are teaming up with Mid-State Technical College for a firefighter academy. They hope to see diverse participation through the program.

The Stevens Point Fire Department said it has minorities on staff and is working with Stevens Point Area Senior High School to try to boost diversity and overall recruitment.

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