Adjusting to our Evolving Fire Service

BY MARY R. HAUPRICH

In 2008, the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services (“iWomen”) released A National Report Card on Women in Firefighting, a landmark study outlining the struggle for fair and equal opportunity within the fire service (downloadable at www.i-women.org/). In it lies the answer to the good questions fire service leaders are beginning to ask: “What specific problems do women face on entering the fire service?” “How can we make our station/procedures/culture more just and welcoming to all firefighters?” The authors surveyed scores of men and women in career departments across the country in an effort to identify and provide solutions to these questions.

As with most things, we can get answers from experts in the field, from attending classes, from reading reports—all good and necessary pursuits. Gleaning some wisdom from folks who’ve already made progress may also prove invaluable. Let’s look at a combination of these resources and make some sense of what we’re facing and how we should proceed. My father used to like to “boil things down” to their simplest form. “Start at the beginning,” he’d say. So, here we go.

For a variety of reasons, some men join the fire service. For a variety of reasons, so do some women. Wanting to give back to their communities; helping their neighbors; a taste for exciting, rewarding work; the technical lure of fighting fires; the ever-changing dynamic of firefighting; the camaraderie in the workplace; the tradition; the challenge—these are all reasons firefighters give for joining the fire service.

I have never, ever heard a woman say she wanted to be a firefighter to chip away at the glass ceiling or to crack into the “boys’ club.” Firefighting is too intense, too demanding, too challenging to stick with unless you really, really like it. So the first thing we all need to agree on is that, with rare exception, in both men and women, people want to become firefighters because it’s good work. Period.

The second thing we need to agree on is that everyone needs to be treated fairly. And there you are. These are the points to which we need to return if we begin to lose focus. We’re all here for the same reasons. We all want to do good work and be treated fairly.

 

THE REPORT CARD

 

Next, we need to take a look at the Report Card. When I’ve spotted a few of the men at the station reading it, they inevitably commented, “I didn’t realize that” at some aspect of the report. Sometimes we just don’t realize what’s going on “out there” and what might be going on in our own departments.

Issues that need addressing are outlined in the report, and the statistics are quite staggering. Almost 80 percent of women firefighters have problems with ill-fitting equipment, which affects job performance, which affects safety, which affects everyone. Imagine how effective fire departments would be if nearly 80 percent of firefighting men had problems with ill-fitting equipment.

There are unvalidated CPAT tests being issued that adversely affect men and women applicants. Firefighters are being denied special training or “altered” training, based solely on gender. More than 50 percent of women firefighters experience shunning and isolation in their departments. Add to that a host of other difficulties—abusive notes or graffiti and lack of privacy in showers and dressing areas, not to mention inequity in hiring and promotional procedures—and we find ourselves having to face the reality that the firehouse can be an incredibly hostile work environment for some. We don’t stand for being subpar in areas of training, performance, and commitment, so it’s disconcerting that we don’t hold the bar so much higher for ourselves in the area of inclusion.

 

HOW CAN WE IMPROVE?

 

According to the Report Card, “In most departments, the first step [toward improvement] … would be to recognize that the ‘playing field’ is not level between the genders today.” Much of today’s workforce is way ahead of us. Though not perfect, at least there is awareness. And with awareness and effort come enlightened solutions to problems.

No women in the department? Why not? Go find some in other departments, and set up meetings with them. Contact the iWomen organization. It is a diverse source of encyclopedic knowledge, spanning many fire service disciplines in the volunteer and career sectors, and it is more than willing to share policies and insights or discuss ways to help you help your department.

One chief in my old neighborhood told me that when he’d bring his wife to the station unannounced, some members often made a mad dash to secret away certain items and “reading material” into drawers and duffel bags; yank pictures and posters off the walls and put them away; and clean up their language on her arrival. This gave him a sense not only of the direction in which his station’s environment needed to go but, more importantly, that his men instinctively already knew this.

“It was very enlightening,” he admits. “We used informal discussions of my wife’s visits to bring about awareness and change. Now her visits require no behind-the-scenes scrambles to make the firehouse a place where a woman can feel comfortable.”

Interestingly, that chief heads an all-volunteer station, which now includes two women firefighters and a female assistant chief. The high standard this volunteer chief has instilled in his firehouse is an example to us all.

The issue, we know, doesn’t lie solely in the argument that women are incapable of performing the demanding duties of firefighting. That myth is continually being disproven by a small but growing number of firefighting professionals in our firehouses today. The issue, we must admit, lies also in the demise of “tradition.”

The fire service isn’t unique in this mindset; we know that the corporate world was once entirely populated by men (as were government, healthcare, the armed services, etc.). These occupations were/are replete with their own exclusively “male” traditions. The difference is, when women proved to be capable, reliable workers within these fields, their acceptance became more widespread. So, we firefighters need to sit up and pay attention.

What do we need to look at—personal protective equipment, living/sleeping/rest room accommodations, policies, the processes by which our firefighters are hired and promoted? And, there’s recruitment. To combat the argument that women “just aren’t interested in firefighting,” we need to appeal equally to men and women in our recruitment efforts. The Report Card states that women who did join the fire service were recruited by personal contact—at sporting and athletic events, at high schools, at colleges. Get to it, then.

As one of the educational outreach officers in my department and director of the Junior Firefighter program, I’m constantly talking to young people and making a special effort to show girls that the fire service is a great place to work and volunteer. Just showing up in uniform/gear is a tremendous message to young people.

These are the easier tasks, the ones we can start doing something about right away, today. But to carry out this new inclusive mandate, sooner or later, we have to face our own personal Moment of Truth: How do I feel—really feel—about having women firefighters on my team? Am I using the same criteria to judge their abilities, performance, and presence in the department? Can I trust a woman to “have my back” during a fire the same way I trust the men? Do I have any preconceived notions about a woman’s capabilities based on the women in my own life? Is that fair and just? Do I object to a woman in the firehouse? Why?

These aren’t always easy questions to answer, and I do understand. But I also know on a very personal level what it’s like when you walk into a fire station and feel as though you’ve mistakenly entered the men’s room at a pub. It may take some soul searching and some awkward missteps, and certainly there will be overcompensation in some areas during the learning process. These are all okay; they’ll fade with time.

It wasn’t until our department learned and followed the rules that we were able to tweak them to fit our circumstances. As the first and only woman on a department some years ago, I found meetings and training stiff and awkward. Language and kidding were stifled. Practical jokes and ribbing took an extended hiatus while we tested one another, while some long-time firefighters left the service, and while the officers tried to figure out what the heck they were going to do with me. Admittedly, the younger men seemed relatively unfazed by my presence, while the chief’s acceptance actually never quite came around (which is proof positive that leadership can, and must, come from all of us). The other men fell somewhere in between.

Slowly, relationships evolved. I was there, uncomplaining, during the all-night calls when we’d come back to the station just as the sun was rising, only to face endless hours of cleaning and drying hose and equipment. I was there for every meeting, asking when I didn’t understand, offering help in areas where I excelled. I was there carrying a 200-plus-pound person down the ladder during training, learning the extrication tool when we finally got one, searching deep in the woods for a missing child, and making coffee that was too strong for almost everyone else to drink. I was there to remind my fellow firefighters that language does matter, even if I didn’t have to utter a word.

The rewards come in small but important ways. I get kidded about everyone waiting to go to a call until I’ve put on my lipstick (never happened). I get seriously prodded about driving the entire parade route with the emergency brake on in Engine 4 (okay, that happened). My status as safety officer has taken on demented, dictatorial proportions. Basically, it has become a very typical firehouse with some minor, but essential, exceptions. I am proud to serve with the men in my house, and I trust they feel the same. Every now and again, a newbie will come along who doesn’t quite get it, but it’s the attitude and example of the others that he will follow. He’ll come around.

We can discuss the paradox of a profession built on compassion and outreach being so exclusionary and come up with all kinds of reasons and theories, but that’s already been done. (Learning them is important to gain a broader understanding, so I recommend studying them.) What we have to do now is face the future and embrace our differences so that we, as a noble profession, are no longer so far behind in our thinking. We’ve come too far as a society to continue to hold onto beliefs that have long since been proven outdated. Let’s move on, together.

Attend the Big Room Session “Fire Service Diversity: Panel Discussion” on Thursday, April 22, 1:30 pm-3:15 pm, at FDIC 2010 in Indianapolis. Panelists include Division Chief of Operations Cheryl Horvath, Northwest Fire District, Tucson, AZ; Lieutenant Joseph B. Muhammad, White Plains (NY) Fire Department/President, International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters; and Lieutenant Frank Ricci, New Haven (CT) Fire Department.

MARY HAUPRICH is a writer/editor/firefighter/water rescue swimmer/i-Women trustee living off the coast of Maine. She is serving a term as an AmeriCorps volunteer with LifeFlight of Maine.

 

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