Building a More Inclusive Environment for Women Firefighters

by | April 6, 2018

The recent #MeToo movement revealed that despite centuries of progress, women still fight to be treated on par with men in the workplace. In the fire service, this is even more of an issue. Fire departments across the country lag far behind corporate America in terms of integrating women.

There are signs of positive change: The number of women in the fire service has risen significantly in the last 25 years, and the latest estimates are that about 7% of firefighters are women. Even though this is still far below the percentage of women in society, the growth means more and more departments are welcoming women into the ranks. For major metro departments, this may be old news. But for many smaller departments, integrating women is a significant challenge.

Lt. Amy Hanifan of the McMinnville (OR) Fire Department recently addressed issues around women in the fire service at a session at Firehouse World in San Diego. Hanifan notes that the issue is complicated by the fact that we don’t know a lot about the differences between men and women firefighters. Very few studies look specifically at women firefighters. For example, the U.S. Fire Administration doesn’t identify gender in line-of-duty death (LODD) statistics.

However, Hanifan shared a few preliminary research studies that point to some important differences between men and women firefighters, including:

• Women in the fire service are younger than their male counterparts and less likely to be officers

• Trauma is the number one cause of LODDs for women firefighters; for men firefighters, it is heart attacks.

• In one study looking only at career firefighters, women accounted for 8% of injuries but only 4.5% of firefighters

Better data is certainly needed. In the meantime, there are many steps departments and leaders can take to address the unique challenges women firefighters face.

Factors Affecting Women in the Fire Service

As with any problem, the solution begins with understanding the scope of the issue. Hanifan groups the factors affecting women in the fire service into three categories:

Physical – The Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) is challenging for any recruit, but it can be especially intimidating for women. Hanifan notes that women recruits have an 85% failure rate on the physical ability test. Further, there are “instances where physical ability tests were created to deliberately exclude women,” she says. Hanifan suggests departments create a more welcoming environment for all recruits by holding open practice sessions and arming candidates with detailed information on the CPAT and what will be expected of them. The physical challenges don’t end with admittance to the academy, either. Firefighting is a physically strenuous career and women may face repeated “tests” to prove their ability to keep up with male crew members. They also face challenges if and when they become pregnant—is it safe to keep responding to calls, and for how long? Does the department place them on light duty for the remainder of their pregnancy, or are they left without options?

Psychological – Women may experience higher levels of anxiety and stress in the fire service; Hanifan notes this is directly related to their low numbers. She was the first women hired full time in her department. “I didn’t have mentors who looked like me,” she says. Sexism, conflicts with co-workers and bullying are additional psychological battles women firefighters face. Although bullying is an issue across the entire fire service, Hanifan says it is often exacerbated for women “because they are more likely to stay in the job due to limited job options.” That, in turn, increases the chance they’ll suffer from behavioral health complications.

Cultural – Longstanding cultural issues can also create barriers for women. Hanifan challenges departments to look at their public-facing materials such as their websites and social media accounts. “Does your organization reflect who it wants to hire?” she asks. “Are there women in the photos on your website?” In a historically male-dominated field, the cultural change necessary to integrate women needs to come from the top, with clear expectations for professional behavior—and holding individuals accountable when they don’t meet those standards.

Ways to Improve Female Firefighter Recruitment/Retention

What can departments do to start bringing down the barriers impacting women firefighters? Hanifan provides four ideas:

1. Improve fire station design. Opportunities to build fire stations from the ground up don’t come along very often, but departments can make changes to existing buildings that make them more welcoming and supportive of women. If you don’t already have restrooms for both genders, ensure the restroom you do have is clearly marked for use by all, and that it locks. Women who are breastfeeding need a place to express the breast milk—and federal law says the restroom is not adequate. Administrators should also consider the arrangement of sleeping quarters. Male and female firefighters don’t necessarily have to sleep in separate rooms, but it’s important that the department address issues of comfort and security.

2. Ensure your policies/procedures support inclusion. In addition to having strong anti-harassment and retaliation policies in place, consider what your department does for pregnant firefighters. Is light duty an option? Is it easy for members to find information about pregnancy and maternity leave? Hanifan notes that it’s important to have a policy around lactation breaks. “Think about this ahead of time so the woman doesn’t have to come to their boss to complain when the time comes,” she says. “A lot of women get nervous bringing these things up. If you can address them ahead of time, it’s a huge contributor to creating an environment of retention.”

3. Create growth opportunities for women. Take a look at the officers in your department and the departments nearby. How many women do you see in fire department leadership positions? Partly, this is because women are relatively new to the fire service, and their numbers overall remain low. But women may also choose to leave rather than promote. Whether they’re leaving to have children or to escape an unsupportive environment, it’s a loss for the department. Departments should make a concerted effort to encourage qualified women to promote. Formal mentoring programs can also help develop and prepare future women leaders.

4. Maintain open communications. “Women may have a different comfort level talking about their goals or speaking up to report bullying or harassment,” Hanifan says. She recommends making sure that women firefighters have a trusted supervisor they feel comfortable talking to.

Why should departments be concerned about creating an environment of inclusion? Besides simply being the right thing to do, there are significant risks involved with not doing it. Failing to build an inclusive culture leaves your department vulnerable to accusations of harassment, bullying, and failure to comply with federal laws. The result can damage personal and organizational reputations and lead to expensive lawsuits.

In departments across the country, women firefighters are forging a new path and making huge contributions to department success. Fire department leaders who work to build a welcoming, supportive culture for women will reap the benefits of their contributions—creating a better fire service for all.

SHANNON PIEPER is senior director of Marketing Content for Lexipol and former editorial director for PennWell Public Safety, publisher of FireRescue magazine and Law Officer magazine.

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