BY SUSAN BRIGHTMIRE
You`re checking out a report of a gas odor. You reach the door the same time as she does. You pause, flashlight in one hand, and pull back the hand that instinctively reached for the knob. You wonder, Is she one of “those” women? Will she smack me for opening the door for her? Will I offend her if I don`t?
Why on earth are things that used to be so uncomplicated now looming over our heads like a huge gray cloud of impending lawsuits?
TIME FOR FACING THE PROBLEM
It is easily summed up in the word diversity. If you are not familiar with this word, then look out. It is coming to your neighborhood soon and no doubt will resemble the same sort of diminutive tornado it has been to every department it has visited thus far. The fire service often has sat back and watched major movements happen in society without really being affected by them–but not this one. Diversity may impact our business more than any other movement simply because we have been so incredibly good at keeping it at bay for so long.
“The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things….” We no longer can afford to pretend that problems between men and women in the fire service do not exist. We do ourselves and our profession a great injustice by fostering this illusion. I know, because I have been more guilty of this pretension than most. It`s tough to be a woman in the fire service today, but I have to admit, being a man sure has its hazards as well.
For years, I resented being “a female firefighter.” I wanted to be seen as just another firefighter, another player on the team who did my best to get the job done. I gave a lot of credence to the sanctity of the “boy`s club,” and I respected the fact that by my very presence, I was changing a profession I thought did not need changing. We have the greatest job in the world; why would I want to change it?
And partly because it was so much easier, I changed myself instead. Firefighters (especially those who happen to be women) everywhere need to wake up to this realization somewhere along the line: Those of us who do the job well do it because of our intense efforts to be “as good as” the guys. I was accepted and generally am well-liked, but in retrospect I see that it was due mostly to my ability to not be different. Rather than take pride in my own innate talents, I did my best to become one of the guys, just as have the other women firefighters I know in other departments. The women who are well-liked are not the ones who cause a stir.
We are all familiar with the “200-years-of-tradition” legacy, and I think most of us accept it with mixed emotions. We love the traditions and values and extraordinary complexities of this work. On the other hand, most of us look forward to progress, hoping we can cure some of the tragedies that also accompany this profession.
I work with incredible men, as we all do–men with hearts so enormous, with depth of character so deep, and with convictions so awe-inspiring that I feel honored to know them. Yet, my enormous respect for these men at times is equally matched by the frustration they create.
“CHALLENGE” THE OPERATIVE WORD
Once again, the solution is the challenge of diversity–and challenge truly is the operative word. I challenge women to stop claiming they are “as good as” their brother firefighters. I challenge the men to stop thinking they are “better” in this profession by some God-given birthright. Concepts such as “good as” and “better than” constitute the single biggest obstacle we face in the struggle for working harmony.
A captain once told me he couldn`t put two women on the same hoseline because he didn`t have confidence in their strength in an actual fire situation. I was livid. We had jumped through every hoop the men had, we were in good shape, and our spirits never were questioned. How could a man I once respected hold such an antiquated view?
But take that same sentence and say: “I don`t feel comfortable putting two small people on a hoseline.” This suddenly changes everything. The good/bad stigma is gone, and we have a reasonable strategic maneuver by a heads-up captain. You don`t send the shortest person to take the ladder off the rig, and you don`t send the biggest person into the crawl space. You use your resources wisely; you take advantage of differences. This is diversity.
There is a great deal of freedom in trying to get away from the stigma of good and bad. I truly don`t think a man can ever appreciate a woman`s fear that sooner or later she will come to a task she is unable to accomplish and that, as a result, she forever will be branded as “not quite as good as a man.”
A chief once told me he liked to hire women because they try so much harder than the men. But is this right? And, to be brutally honest, no matter how hard we try, we cannot always maintain this standard. There comes a time when every human may not be up to the task. Our brothers never know this fear. They can forget an address, lose a tool, or need help with a hydrant; no one raises an eyebrow. What is most painful is that up until recently, no one ever questioned this. Women are as guilty as the men in fostering this situation–maybe even more so. I had the uncomfortable realization recently that there are times when I am not a positive force on a call. Not too long ago, a patient who had overindulged tried to maul me, and my crew had to come to my rescue. If I were honest with myself, I would have to admit that I put them in a bad spot, a position I know would never have arisen with an all-male crew.
At the same time, I profess that I am better with rape victims, I am great with children, and no one can beat me when it comes to the elderly patient.
It is not at all unusual for the men of this profession to resent the women for changing what has always been, fixing what was not broken. Any kind of change is difficult, and the fire service is going through some uncomfortable growing pains as men and women try to figure out how to manage to work together.
CELEBRATE THE DIFFERENCES
I used to believe we should become more tolerant of our differences. Now I propose we take that a step further and actually try to rejoice in them. The truth is, we are a diverse group–beyond the difference of just being men and women. We also differ in all manner of ethics and values. The growing gap in our understanding of each other can be bridged only by sincere and safe communications. We need to admit that problems such as when to open the door for a woman or the resentment arising from eliminating a poster of a naked woman from a locker really are insignificant in the overall picture. Although women are relatively new to this profession, they hold it in as high regard as their male counterparts. They are not here to be a thorn in the men`s sides. They are here because their hearts are here. n
SUSAN BRIGHTMIRE is a firefighter with the Littleton (CO) Fire Department. She serves on the department`s public education and physical fitness committees.