Women Drive Apparatus, Assist Men on Fireground
One thing that most volunteer fire departments have in common is the lack of daytime manpower. This is especially true of suburban departments where most of the men work away in the city during the daytime, returning at night to eat and sleep. Most of the men who are left are working locally and may or may not be available to promptly answer a fire or rescue call. On some days, there might be as few as two men or as many as 20 men answering a call. We tried recruiting additional men from around town but most did not want to take time off from work or to use their spare time for training or station duties.
Since a few other departments around the country had women, we decided to explore this avenue for additional help. Fire Chief James Babe and myself made inquiries of some of the firemen’s wives to see if such an idea had merit and to see if anyone was interested. Out of the first 15 women contacted, 13 said that they would like to give it a try.
At the onset of this undertaking, it was understood that no special treatment was to be given to the women. The first training to be given was the 16-week Firemanship I course that is approved by the State Board of Vocational and Adult Education. We require all of our men to have completed this course before they are considered as regular members of the fire department. The course is given at the Waukesha County Technical Institute located in Pewaukee. Captain James Kargl of the West Milwaukee Fire Department and John Kraatz of the Waukesha Fire Department conduct the 2 ½-hour sessions, both during the day and evenings, one day per week. All of the basics are covered including the chemistry of fire, forcible entry, salvage, ventilation, overhaul, ropes, masks, ladders, hose lines and live fire fighting. In addition to this school, the women were integrated into our department’s training program under the direction of Deputy Chief John Babe. Here is where they get to work with the men so that all are trained as a team. When the women first showed up for training at WCTI and the station, some of the men did not take to working with them. However, after a period of time and hard work, the women proved themselves. There is now a spirit of real teamwork and cooperation among everyone.
The first problem that was encountered was that of equipment. Most of the personnel equipment that is used by the men was too large for the women to wear. This necessitated the purchase of smaller sized boots and coats. Even using the smallest size boot, some women have to wear several pairs of socks to have a comfortable fit. The next problem was that of the self-contained breathing apparatus. The smaller-framed women have trouble with the wearing of the air pack. The weight of the air pack is almost one-half of the weight of some ladies. This caused them to have problems moving about. We were not too concerned about this; however, it is essential that they know how to put one on and know how it operates. The next problem that was encountered was driving the equipment. Even though the rigs have power brakes and steering, their very size makes them different from an automobile. The shifting patterns are different, steering wheels are larger and air brakes are touchier than regular brakes. On two of our rigs, it takes a certain “feel” to shift them smoothly through the gears. After demonstrations and quite a bit of stop and go driving the women have this mastered. They can drive as well as most of the men.
We now have about four to eight women responding per fire call. Their operations at the fire scene have been most satisfactory. At the present time they fill in positions behind the men. They help raise ladders, pull hose, drive the trucks, run the pumps, back up the men on hose lines and other fireground activities. As time goes on, we expect to have them participate in rescues and inside fire fighting. At the time of this writing, eight of the women are taking the 27hour MPO course at WCTI. As scheduling permits, they will be taught advanced first aid. We also hope to send some of them through EMT training. There have been times when a woman on the rescue squad would have been beneficial both to the squadmen and the patient. One problem that was not expected is that the person who misses the last truck out might have to babysit for some of the women’s children at the station. Needless to say, these kids will probably be the next generation of fire fighters!
Having completed the required training and after having worked with the men, Patricia Imse sums up the women’s feelings. “It’s really interesting work. When you are done and have just helped at a fire, you have a really good feeling.”
Chief Babe is especially pleased with the women’s performance. “I wish I had done this 20 years ago. These gals worked to beat hell and I’m proud of them. Over the past year, we have found that the women are more than willing to help out the men. They can be an effective force on or off the fireground.