By Becki White
Go ahead and size me up. I get it, it's what we do: buildings, people, situations... We know that not doing a complete size-up can be catastrophic on the fireground, so go ahead. I know what you’ll see when you look beyond my gender. You will see that my dedication, passion, and intensity level parallels anyone else’s on the fireground. My desire to be the best at my craft fuels me.
Since the 1600s, the term "firefighter" has been used to describe the people who risked their lives to save the lives and property of their fellow citizens. Many people don’t realize that there were women in the fire service as far back as 1818, and that there were all-women companies by the 1900s. Yet, even today, I get asked the most absurd questions about being a female in the fire service. “Do you have to take the same classes that the men take?” “Do you really get to drive the truck?” It used to annoy me that people were discounting my abilities like that, but I realized it was a reflection of our society. We have to work, united as a service—brothers and sisters side-by-side—to change that perception.
Discounting women’s roles in male-dominated fields isn’t new. In fact, our culture perpetuates it. We can deny it, but it’s there. Expectations on what women bring to the table are deeply rooted in our culture, those “traditional” and “nontraditional” roles that women should or shouldn’t occupy. We use terms like mailman, policeman, and fireman; even though they aren’t meant to exclude, they do. Phrases like, “throw like a girl” are used to show that the throw (in this case) doesn’t live up to standards.
No one is immune to discounting women, not even me. My husband is a police officer (a whole article in itself). I question the women on his department. Will they have his back? Can they protect him if something “goes down”? Then I realize that I’m having the same culturally sexist reaction that people have of me. Of course they can! They’ve had to travel a long road fueled by passion, dedication, and determination to get where they are. This I know, because I’ve travelled that road having to prove that I can pull my own weight on the fireground. When I hear about a female firefighter that received special conditions or was passed ahead even though she couldn’t keep up with standards, it upsets me, mainly because others assume that I can’t do the job because someone completely unrelated to me or my training got a pass or because she failed at something I have been consistently doing for more than a decade. Men aren’t often judged by the failures of other men, but women across the fire service are.
To me, “brotherhood” isn’t a word; it’s a feeling. I don’t care that it’s assigned a masculine name—I just know that it means family. It’s a deep-rooted “I got your back and I know you have mine” unspoken understanding. It’s something that is difficult to explain to people who aren’t in our profession, or even those that haven’t felt the connection to the fire service and their fellow firefighters. I have been coolly dismissed by those that treat the brotherhood as a “boys-only” club. It used to bother me, being shut out, not being included in that group.
But then it happened last year; after nine years in the fire service, I finally understood brotherhood. It happened after attending sessions at FDIC, when I was warmly welcomed by brothers who truly understood the meaning of brotherhood. They made me understand that it’s about family, almost deeper than that blood-tie connection. From a desire to circle around each other and protect each other through shared knowledge on training and fire behavior to being there for each other for camaraderie and support, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, full-time or volunteer. What matters is if you’re a firefighter, you have a desire to be the best, and you surround yourself with the best. Then you are part of my family—part of my brotherhood.
I seek out mentors in my department who are masters at “our way” of doing things, and I find others, outside my department, from across the country, who run with different tools and different philosophies of doing the job. I am constantly researching and learning what experience and science has to say about our craft, learning lessons from others who have worn the gear before me. So, go ahead and size me up! I know my stuff. Do you?
So, the next time you are sizing up a woman and assume that she doesn’t have what it takes to stand alongside you in this family, I hope that you do a complete 360°. Look beyond what the outside is telling you. Look at the passion and determination. Look at the desire and the heart. Do a complete size-up before you make your decision. If you decide to exclude her from your “brotherhood” based on gender, it might just be you with the deficiencies; not her.
Becki White is a captain in the Eden Prairie (MN) Fire Department. She is certified as a firefighter II, fire and life safety educator II, fire instructor, fire officer, fire investigator, hazardous materials technician, local hazard zone management, and apparatus operator. She is in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and will be teaching this year at FDIC on effective presentations. White is also the vice president of the North Star Women's Firefighter Association, a nonprofit organization that assists with mentoring, networking, and training women in the fire service.