WOMEN IN THE FIRE SERVICE

WOMEN IN THE FIRE SERVICE

BY MICHAEL F. STALEY

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine sent me a newspaper clipping from The Gainesville Sun front page, a color photograph of Gainesville (FL) Fire Department Lieutenant Cindy Diven. She was holding a frightened child in her arms. Her eyes were riveted intently on some distant, obviously distressing activity just beyond the camera lens. Her face was etched with exhaustion and concern. I looked at the photograph for a long time and thought, “You`ve come a long way, baby.” Lieutenant Diven demonstrated just how far the journey has been. Here she was, a professional female firefighter: all the power and capability of a man combined with the gentle, nurturing nature of a woman. The photograph said it all.

WOMEN VOLUNTEERS WHO TAUGHT ME WELL

Lieutenant Diven reminded me of my first encounter with women in the fire service. I met my first woman firefighter when I served as a volunteer firefighter in Pennsylvania. We were working at a remote farm site, battling a fully involved barn. I was waiting for a shuttle to come and reload our water when a 3,000-gallon tanker from a neighboring department pulled up. To my surprise, a woman was at the wheel! I got over my surprise in short order.

In those days, when the tradition was “men at work and women at home,” we had a problem when there was a fire during a weekday. Volunteer men couldn`t respond to an alarm fast enough. First, we had to contact them, then they had to get off from work, get to the station, and get to the fire. It took too long.

But women were another story. They were home, and their ability to respond to an emergency was undeniably superior. So, the majority of our volunteer firefighting force was made up of women–stay-at-home wives and mothers who, fortunately for the community, didn`t stay at home when the alarm sounded.

When you work with women firefighters, it doesn`t take long to figure out that they are not nearly as fragile as they appear. It`s a good thing, because if they were fragile, they would not have survived. Our profession can be brutal, and not just the physical rigors of fighting fires but the monumentally difficult challenge of changing attitudes.

When I entered the fire service nearly 30 years ago, it was a man`s world–we were called firemen. Today, with the addition of women, we are called firefighters. I am convinced that women put the “fighter” there. They have had to battle uphill all the way.

WOMEN HAVE HAD TO FIGHT THE WHOLE WAY

They have had to fight themselves. I believe that very few women are reared to believe that they can do something as physically and emotionally demanding as fighting fires. I think they are subtly programmed in our society to seek more “gentle” careers. Recently I went shopping for a birthday card for a firefighter friend`s young son. I wanted one with a little boy with a dalmatian on a big red truck. I had no trouble finding exactly what I wanted. But in browsing in the kids` card section, I noticed that all the boys` cards were in bold, primary colors and depicted boys doing all sorts of adventuresome things. The messages were the “Go get `em, you great kid!” sort of verses. I made another interesting observation. The girls` birthday cards were in soft pastels and depicted little girls sitting down doing very passive things like smelling flowers. And all the messages were about behavior: “To a sweet girl ….” or “To the nicest little girl ….” I think these birthday cards are smaller versions of our unspoken “Gender Difference Rules.” Our society doesn`t support a “Go get `em” kind of little girl in search of adventure. We want her to be quiet and sweet. If you`ve ever met a female firefighter, you know that quiet and sweet don`t get it. Many women in the fire service were not reared to do what they now do. They have had to take a “road less traveled,” to make a 180-degree turn from what everyone expected and reprogram themselves. It couldn`t have been easy.

They have had to fight the male firefighters` wives. When pioneer career female firefighters entered the fire service, one of the first problems they encountered was the “jealous wife” who was incensed that her husband was “sleeping with” another woman. It was understandable. In the beginning, there was no privacy. There were no separate bathrooms. It was an easy assumption to make: man, woman, long hours, beds, showers. The wives raised red flags and caused a lot of trouble. I imagine that it was confusing for the women firefighters, who wanted nothing more than to be allowed to work. In the ensuing years, with partitions in the sleeping quarters, bathrooms, and time and experience, everyone has relaxed.

They have had to fight the men. In the beginning, there was passive and active aggression against female firefighters. I would be hard-pressed to decide which one must have been worse. Some men were pretty miffed at the invasion of the male domain. Pinup pictures had to come off the walls, and “private” magazines had to come out of the bathrooms. We had to clean up our language and our manners more. Some men (in fact, some whole stations) retaliated by revamping the physical tests to make certain that no female could pass them. To be honest, most men couldn`t pass them. But some straightforward lawsuits blocked this practice.

There are thousands of stories of equipment tampering, bed short-sheeting, schedule rearranging, and other mean-spirited shenanigans intended to discourage these early female invaders. But it didn`t stop them. In fact, it made those women stronger. Every female firefighter I have known or spoken with has had a story to tell about being unwanted and having to prove herself.

But they have won. I`m glad they did. I am proud of them. Women have fought fires since the dawn of time. In fact, I can`t even find a reference to the earliest known female firefighters. In our country, they served with Ben Franklin in the women`s auxiliary, helping their men fight. When their men couldn`t fight, the women stepped forward alone. It has always been that way, and the fire service is better for it.

THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF WOMEN

Women do an equal job for equal pay, but they bring a unique perspective to the work, a kinder way. I remember stories of the women firefighters in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in Miami a couple of years ago. Not only were they side-by-side with the men in disaster control, but they were the glue that held the evacuation centers together. Shattered families and frightened kids found strength and comfort in the company of women firefighters, who were able to balance control with compassion and sensitivity. I`m not saying that men couldn`t or didn`t exhibit the same skills, but the women distinguished themselves. There was something comforting about having women nurturing and maybe mothering just a little–in the centers that helped foster a calming sense of community and family.

I COULD HAVE USED A WOMAN`S HELP

I can remember incidents when I wanted the partnership of women firefighters on the calls. In one such incident, I responded to an emergency medical call for a woman who had been raped. I arrived and found her cowering in a corner, surrounded by well-intentioned, burly cops who were trying to talk her into coming out. I broke through the hovering gathering of blue uniforms and knelt in front of her with my medical kit. She took one look at me and screamed, “It`s him! He did it! He raped me!” One of the officers said, “Now, ma`am. This can`t be the guy. This is Mike.” She screamed, “It is! It`s him!” I was being accused of rape! I looked around frantically for a female officer or fire rescue worker. This woman was seriously traumatized and when she looked up, all she saw was a wall of male faces. What she needed to see was a woman, someone to trust. Sadly, it was too early in the evolution of our profession for us to have enough females to be on every call.

Today, statistics are more in our favor. Even better, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts a greater increase in percentages by the millennium.

Women have forced advances in our technologies. This is a good thing. No longer able to use brute force in all circumstances, we have had to do a better job of developing equipment that works for a smaller person. From SCBAs to couplings, our tools are getting better. Today, we approach emergency situations with more brains than brawn.

NEVER DOUBT A WOMAN

Never doubt that a woman can do the job. If she`s wearing the uniform, she has passed the rigorous physical testing and the difficult administrative testing. But more than that, she has probably worked twice as hard to get where she is and has overcome obstacles that would buckle the normal human being. She can do the job, and she brings to it the special sensitivities of being a woman. More power to her, and our thanks. n

MICHAEL F. STALEY, a former firefighter and EMT, is a motivational speaker and heads the Port Orange, Florida-based Golden Hour Motiva-tional Resources, through which he also provides consulting and speaking services. He can be reached at (800) 622-6453, fax (904) 788-5648, or e-mail at http://www.MIKESTALEY.com.

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