I’m reposting this piece from a couple of years ago, in honor of International Women’s Day!
And I want give a shout out to those men who support women and girls – and women working in non-traditional careers! Thank you for your respect, mentorship, and advocacy! Women have made great strides, with still a long way to go; and I’m teaching my young son to be like the men I know who continue to support women in the name of equality, justice, and humanity.
Enjoy my post and learning more about women firefighters!
Did you know that International Women’s Day is celebrated every year on March 8?
Worldwide thousands of events occur on this day to mark the social, political, and economic achievements of women over the centuries. Millions of people have gathered around the word this past weekend in honor of International Women’s Day.
I am no stranger to the achievements made by women. I spent my formative high school years at an all-girls school, soaking in the histories of women throughout the world—leaders, academics, scientists, doctors, artists, and activists–and the transformative and lasting accomplishments they made for humanity.
As a woman who works as a firefighter—which is classified as a non-traditional career for women—I wanted to do my part on this day celebrating women. So, I recently asked some folks, friends and family, between the ages of 7 and 77 for some help. I asked, “If you could ask a woman firefighter any question, what would it be?”
Here are their questions and my answers. Enjoy. And Happy International Women’s Day!
Why did you want to become a firefighter? Do you think the reasons that a woman wants become a firefighter are any different than the reasons a man wants to become a firefighter?
I wanted to become a firefighter, because I wanted to help people and serve my community. I always pictured myself in a career that was service-oriented, and being a firefighter is a way that I can do that.
When I discovered that women in the fire service were few, I was daunted. But I have to admit, I was also motivated by that challenge. (Maybe that goes way back to my childhood…. Once when I was five, a boy challenged me in the sandbox. He said, “I bet you can’t do this.” And he proceeded to unzip his pants and pee in the sandbox. I immediately pulled down my pants, and peed in the sandbox too!)
In answer to Part 2 of your question, I have found that women and men whom I have met in my career, usually seek out firefighting for many of the same reasons—desire to serve their community, help others, the daily physical challenge of the job, the team aspect, and the mental, physical, and technical challenges that mitigating an emergency brings.
What do you like about being a firefighter?
See all of the above!
What do you have to do to get a job as a firefighter? Do you have to do the same thing as the men?
Like everything else, the fire service is evolving. The first firefighters in the United States were men (thus “firemen”). The first paid female firefighter in the US was hired in 1973. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, many departments implemented affirmative action measures to increase the diversity of their fire personnel ranks.
Today men and women, alike, need to go through the same rigorous testing process that can take anywhere from six to twelve months. The testing process usually begins with a written exam. Those who pass the written, go on to the physical agility test. Women have to pass the same physical agility tests required by the men to be firefighters.
To be an effective firefighter you need a healthy balance of cardiac endurance and upper and lower body strength. In general, while many men may be able to rely more on strength due to muscle mass to accomplish fire ground tasks, women learn to use body mechanics and smarter techniques, in conjunction with their strength, to be effective firefighters. In truth, this is the smarter way to go, and all firefighters would do well to keep their bodies healthy and free of injury by practicing body mechanics and smarter techniques.
After agility tests are passed, the process continues with oral board interviews, a Chief’s interview, and extensive background checks. Thousands of people apply for usually only a few firefighting positions. Once hired, men and women must all go through a fire academy where they learn and practice firefighting skills. If they pass the academy, they begin their probationary year as a firefighter. As a probationary firefighter they continue to be trained and tested throughout the year, on the fire ground through written exams and manipulative skills.
Do men and women share the same types of jobs in the fire service?
Yes! Men and women firefighters participate in the same tasks whether it is going into fires holding the nozzle and the hose, cutting ventilation holes on top of roofs with chain saws, climbing aerial ladders a hundred feet in the air, using hydraulic power tools to cut apart cars to get to patients that are trapped inside, or using their EMT or paramedic skills in treating sick or injured people.
There are far fewer women in captain’s positions, and even less in chief’s positions. The first paid female fire chief in the United States was Chief Rosemary Bliss of Tiburon, California. She became Fire Chief in 1993. In 2012, Teresa Deloach Reed became the nation’s first African American woman Fire Chief of Oakland, California, Fire Department.
When you started working in the fire service, were there an even number of women and men in the fire department? How about now?
The fire department in which I work is comprised of about 10 firefighters who are women—and that is on the progressive side according to national standards. According to the 2010 Census, women make up roughly 4.8% of firefighters in the fire service in the United States. The first woman to be hired in my department, just recently retired. She is living history in my book!
There are about the same number of women in my department now, as when I started about 15 years ago. Some of the first women have retired and we have a few new women firefighters, but there have, steadily, only been about 8 to 10 women in that span of time out of about 100 to 110 firefighters.
Are there many female firefighters? If not how does it feel to be one?
As you see there are not so many women who are firefighters. But, one of the great things I love about being a woman who is a firefighter is being a role model and mentor for young girls/women. When we go to the schools to talk about fire safety, there is always whispering and pointing, “There’s a girl,” the little people say. I hope to be an example to them—the girls and the boys—that they can do anything they put their minds to.
What are the challenges that women face in the fire service today?
The fire service is steeped in tradition, a para-military organization, so change happens slowly. Lack of facilities—sleeping quarters and bathrooms—are challenges that have been gradually addressed in recent years. Today most fire stations are designed to accommodate separate facilities for men and women.
In the beginning, fire gear was designed for men, so women wore ill-fitting gear, making the job more difficult and dangerous. Over the years, fire departments have become better in providing protective gear that fits all shapes and sizes.
The greatest changes will come as the fire service culture itself shifts. The fire service culture, in regards to women, has been called exclusionary because of under-hiring, glass ceiling, social isolation, and discrimination in the worst cases.
Here is what I see: a new generation of young men, many who come from families where both father and mother worked. A new generation of young men who watched their sisters become independent women. A new generation of young men who live in a changing world. They are more open-minded than many of their predecessors. A new generation of leaders, stepping into positions as examples in which they have the opportunities to be proactive in mentoring and advocating for women. My department sends a group of our women firefighters annually to a local expo, designed to encourage women to enter the field of firefighting. That’s a good first step with a lot of work yet to be done in the creation of an inclusive workplace.
My question would be: how did you earn the respect you deserve in the face of automatic lack of respect which just happens automatically by being a woman in that type of career (even the best intentioned conscious men have it on some level).
A question that gets straight to the point. Here’s my straight answer. The burden of proof lies on the women. Gleaned from experience and conversations I have had with women firefighters over the years, there is a similar version of this feeling of having to constantly prove oneself, long after being hired. I believe this too will shift over time, as it slowly has. While I believe that women still currently bear the burden of proving themselves over and over, I believe the first women fire fighters had many more “eyes on them” and more to “prove” than current women firefighters.
I admire women who go against the grain and choose a career that is male dominated. My question would be: How do you take care of yourself before, during and after a shift at work? Since it is a very masculine field, how do you keep your femininity alive…or do you have to suppress it?
In the beginning of my career I wanted to “blend in” as much as I could, so I did not embrace my full womanhood in my fire career context. I cut my long hair short, and shoved my inner tomboy to the forefront. That got old quick.
I decided I had a lot to offer as a woman and as a firefighter. Today, I believe strongly in being my authentic feminine self, especially as firefighter. The more diverse we can be–in all areas whether in our gender, race, our thinking, our physical, mental or emotional makeup—in the fire service, the greater the pool from which we can pull, when it is time to solve problems on the emergency scene or within our own organizations.