Celebrating Women in the World of Firefighting

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.

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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% of 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!