By Erica Blockman
In an industry that is predominantly male, it’s hard coming in to work knowing you’re not going to be accepted by everyone. When the general public hears the word “firefighter,” they think of a tall, strong, beefy man, not a smaller-framed woman. So for those of us in the minority in the fire service, there is typically a lot of proving to be done. I hear it almost every day when I’m in uniform or in my turnout gear, comments such as, “You’re a firefighter? But you’re so small” and “How do you wear that? It weighs as much as you do.” I could seriously spend a page on the comments people have made to me regarding my size.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of females in the fire service who definitely look the role! They are taller, look stronger, carry a great command presence, and get the job done just as easily as the men do. Second, there are some of us, such as myself, who are shorter, smaller, have to jump higher to reach equipment from an engine, and look more like cadets when fully geared up. Excluding that, when it comes down to it, we get the job done too.
Lastly, there are the handful of women who make all of us have to give ten times the effort, the ones who cry every time they get yelled at or can’t complete a task, complain about having to do labor, and depend on the men in their group to pull extra weight when they get tired. Most that I have seen get a job because daddy is high in rank. This is what everyone seems to remember about the fairer sex in the workplace.
One thing I wish most men would remember about women that don’t belong in the fire service is this: For every handful of women who probably shouldn’t be in the field, there are a handful of men who don’t belong as well. It’s always more noticeable when a woman can’t pull her own weight because there is a smaller number of us, so everyone is always looking and always critiquing. But who has been looking at the percentage of men who are grotesquely overweight who will only run or hike if their lives depend on it? Or the ones who depend solely on their job for means of physical fitness? Regardless of this fact, however, I think women will always get the shorter end of the stick. If you can accept that, there are a few things that I have found to help with overcoming the challenges of any predominantly male industry: your state of mind and your physical fitness.
Your command presence is almost everything. People can tell right off the bat whether or not you are a confident or timid type of person. People tend to listen more as well as take instructions from someone who is confident and displays more leadership qualities. You need to have this. One of my first challenges in the service was people taking me seriously. It’s hard not to mentally break down when you have numerous people doubting and criticizing you. But what you have to do is let others’ doubts fuel your fire. Don’t let it get the best of you. If you know what you are capable of and have faith in who you are, you can prove them wrong and stay humble. I know that I enjoy firefighting because I like giving back to my community; you’re showing up on someone’s very worst day to provide not only a sense of comfort but also hope. I’m not in it because I want to be the hero or to prove something. You need to ask yourself why you want it. If you know why you’re in the service or why you would like to be in the service, stick to that idea and don’t let the word of an overweight officer make you feel otherwise. Someone will always have something negative to say about you, but you can’t let it get under your skin. The fire service is a strong brotherhood and sisterhood, and our individual relationships should always remain strong and supportive. There is no room for gender bashing at the firehouse or elsewhere on the job.
When I talk about the importance of command presence and confidence, I’m talking about being mentally strong–not physically strong. I became a more confident firefighter and individual through physical training. The mental and physical go hand-in-hand. If you know how to train and push yourself to the limit physically, you break mental barriers as well–the barriers that prevent you from becoming a stronger person. The more you physically challenge yourself, the more you realize that your body is more capable and stronger than you believed. If you know this, you also know that you are constantly challenging yourself to meet new heights. But you can’t do it simply by going to the gym or doing functional training alone.
The only way to overcome a physical barrier is to be mentally focused and strong. Tell yourself that you can do it, imagine yourself doing it, and never tell yourself that you can’t. Know that it may take you more than one try and know that it may be easier for most men to do. I know that during tough runs in the fire academy, during the times that I really wanted to give up and take a break, I just imagined myself taking another step, how I would rather get it over with than stop. I thought of all the people around me who didn’t like me as a squad leader, so I ran faster.
I brought this mentality to the gym on my off days. Near the end of a set when the weight felt too heavy, I would imagine a scenario on the job. If I was near my wits end on a squat, I would imagine doing a fireman’s carry with a fellow firefighter on my back, and then I would have to finish the lift. When I felt like I couldn’t do any more pull-ups, I would imagine having the weight of my turnout gear and SCBA and having to pull myself from a sticky situation. When I was getting too tired near the end of a sprint, I would imagine fire behind me. Keeping this state of mind always made me push harder. Many times I just imagined the faces of the people who said I wouldn’t make it to give me that push.
Was I always able to finish everything? No. But did it make me feel stronger and more confident in my abilities? You bet. If you make physical fitness a top priority and learn to take that mental push you give yourself at the gym in your everyday life, the possibilities are endless at what you can do. You have to have the mental part down before you master the physical. You will find that you can build your strength to new levels and improve your overall attitude as well. Being physically fit helps heighten your ability to focus so you will find that studying and everyday academic chores flow much easier. You will most likely enjoy your time at work more often as well.
But this also leads me to say that not everything about the job relies on strength and endurance alone. Many aspects of the job are all technique and thinking outside the box, especially if you’re not the kind of person who relies solely on brute strength. I won’t say that sometimes even the techniques come without challenges when you are smaller in stature.
During an auto extrication class, I had an instructor (also extremely overweight) tell me that it was going to be physically impossible for me to use a specific method using hand tools to peel back on a hood to gain access to battery cables. He told me that I needed to gain more weight and hit the gym more often. It was my first time using the technique, so I’m not going to lie and say that it wasn’t difficult. But I found it highly unlikely that I couldn’t do it because of my weight; I watched other people in my academy who I knew I beat in the strength department do it just fine. I didn’t argue with my instructor. I went to a different group and asked another instructor to show me the technique. Lo and behold, this method was purely about technique, not about weight or upper body strength. After my first shot behind being shown a little more in depth of the method, it was not an issue. Anyone could do it if shown properly. This same instructor went on in the academy to also tell me that I would never pass a hoselay test. Again, only more fuel for the fire.
As I’m sure you’re wondering, yes, throwing a 24-foot extension ladder by myself was also initially an issue. The single person shoulder carry method was and still is a back wrencher; I’m not going to lie. Though I am able to throw using this method, I do not find it height friendly. I don’t care what anyone else says. The marking on the ladder, which most of us use as the fulcrum point, leaves me almost little to no room to properly get the butt spurs on the ground while walking. I have to almost get a running start while using a deep explosive squat to get both spurs on the ground. Is it a well controlled method to raising the ladder? No, but it gets it up. Throwing the 24 is almost 100-percent a technique to master, not so much all strength, they say (though for me I feel is 75 percent strength and 25 percent technique). I have yet to find any studies on throwing these ladders shoulder carry method and the relationship to height, but I’d like to see one. However, after the academy, I can say that I never used this method again. I did not find it safe for me or for anyone around me. I find it much easier to bed or beam raise the ladder against the building or, better yet, take away 10 seconds of another crew member’s time, save your back, and throw the ladder together. What I want others to understand is the difficulty this poses for many women of smaller stature, but that we can overcome it if allowed to use our own techniques. If you cannot do a particular task, play around with it for awhile, and see if there’s another method that works for best for you. Just like they say, there are a 100 ways to skin a cat, none of which makes the cat happy. With that said, there are numerous ways to throw a ladder, do a hoselay, or drag a victim from a building. We’re going to have to figure out what’s going to work best for us.
I want other women in the service to know that there will always be something on the job that someone else will be better at than you, but with that said, there will always be something you have to offer that they don’t. There will always be that handful of people who doubt your abilities and will stop at nothing to find your weakest points. There will always be the few who doubt your ability to have their back during a fire and possibly save their life. All I can say is, have the desire to prove them wrong and have the desire to prove it to yourself. If you know this is where you want your career to be, whether volunteer or paid, why not be the best at it? Why let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t do it?
If physical fitness is not a top priority for you, I think you may want to reconsider the job. I know I would not be in any part of this service if I had not made health and fitness a priority. Yes, I had and still have to work a lot harder than most men to do a task they think is simple, but I do it, and that’s what matters to me. The last thing I want to do is put another brother or sister’s life at risk because of my physical shortcomings. If I am ever not able to bodily do something and I know that I gave it my all and trained my hardest physically to master it, that’s all I can do and that’s all you can ask of someone. I’m not going to beat myself up about something I know I gave 110% at. That’s when you ask your fellow brother for help without shame. You’re part of a crew with people who are good at some things and not so great at others. As firefighters, you may be a jack of all trades but also a master of none. Know that there will be some things that you will have to work harder at; it’s okay, and it’s what makes part of the challenge of the job. But it is extremely important to challenge yourself when you are not at work. Make physically challenging yourself and your body a part of your life. I found that doing this makes the challenges of work much less stressful.
Being a female, tall, short, or whatever you’d like to label yourself, you’re only part of the so-called ” female statistic” if you do not take the time in your life to maintain your most important tools: your body and mind. You may not be as big or tall as our brothers, but you have all the strength you need and you are strong mentally and spiritually. Incorporate this physical challenge into your everyday life. See how much you can surprise yourself. You’ll be on your way to becoming not only a stronger and happier individual but one less likely to let the judgmental words of someone else ruin your day. You can’t change who you are, your height, or your gender, but you can always make changes and improvements in your body and attitude.
Erica Blockman is a career engineer/paramedic with the Mount Shasta (CA) Fire Protection District; she has been with the department for four years. She is also a personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and figure competitor with seven years of experience.