Dr. Thomas Azwell, UC Berkeley faculty and director for the Disaster Lab, has been honored with the prestigious Chancellor’s Award for Public Service. The award celebrates his substantial contributions to diversifying the firefighting industry through the FIRE Foundry program.
Dr. Azwell initially launched the program to serve communities in Marin County, with a keen focus on advocating for more women and people of color to pursue careers in firefighting. FIRE Foundry has since expanded across California, successfully bridging the gap between underrepresented communities and the firefighting industry.
The importance of this initiative is underscored by statistics from the 2020 County of Marin Equal Employment Opportunity Plan, which reveal that as of December 2019, 90% of Fire Department employees identified as white, and 91% as male. This glaring disparity, which runs contrary to the region’s diversity, is a trend mirrored at state and national levels.
The FIRE Foundry program has been instrumental in addressing this imbalance. Appointed by the Fire Chief of Marin in 2021 to spearhead the initiative, Dr. Azwell dedicated hundreds of hours to understanding firefighting culture, the reasons behind the lack of diversity, and the necessary training and skills for success in the sector. He engaged experts and researchers from UC Berkeley and beyond to understand the findings and use them to shape the program.
Dr. Azwell’s passion for this cause stems from his prior experience as a high school teacher in low-income, diverse communities and his mentorship of students from these communities at UC Berkeley. His commitment to the initiative has been demonstrated by his direct participation in firefighting training, enduring the physical demands of the wildland academy, and experiencing first-hand the realities of firefighting.
His efforts have led to the program’s expansion beyond Marin County, building partnerships with entities like NASA, ESRI, and other technology companies to offer recruits unique training and certification opportunities. The program has received accolades from KQED, the Heart of Marin, the State of California, and beyond for its innovative approach to diversifying the firefighting workforce.
The results speak for themselves: over 18 recruits have already completed the program, with four currently working in fire departments. The majority have secured EMR and EMT certification, and others are progressing to roles in forestry, CalFire, or applying to fire academies. The success of the program in Marin County has sparked interest from SF Fire, SJ Fire, and Oakland Fire to expand the reach of FIRE Foundry.
Working with Dr. Azwell has been “nothing short of a pleasure,” says Sukhmeet Singh, Lab Manager at UC Berkeley Disaster Lab, lauding Dr. Azwell’s ability to bridge academia and real-world application. This distinction only further highlights the limitless impact made by the University of California, Berkeley, and the distinguished faculty and alumni who contribute to the greater community.