Did you realize that only eight percent of all U.S. firefighters are women?1 Although that number represents growth in this job sector, it does not explain the whole story. Let’s dive into what makes up that number, issues women face in this industry, the benefits of having a more inclusive workforce, and what is being done to attract more women to this important field.
While today only four percent of all career firefighters are women in the United States, women make up 11% of all volunteer firefighters.2 Women also comprise 12% of federal wildland firefighters.* These are important strides for this dangerous profession. The United States Fire Administration (USFA) is publishing a handbook about how to not only attract more top female talent, but also the issues women in the fire service may face such as:
- Emergency vehicle operation and roadway incidents
- Firefighter cancer, a topic that is relevant to all who fight fires
- Heart health and other physical health issues that firefighters often face
- Mental health as well as suicide
- Overall occupational safety and health topics.
None of these issues are new, but they are still important to address. Moreover, firefighting organizations need to recognize and combat discrimination and harassment with updated policies and strategies to help not only recruit but retain female firefighters. The USFA also recommends that fire service leadership should consider implementing evidence-based strategies to combat barriers to the recruitment and retention of women, which include:
- Use recruitment methods specific to gender inclusion.
- Promote inclusivity through training.
- Standardize the Candidate Physical Ability Test.
- Accommodate the schedules of volunteers to address work-life balance challenges.
- Offer non-wage benefits.
- Recognize employee accomplishments and life moments.
- Develop programs for family engagement.
Not only can these changes benefit women, but they can also help improve the quality of the overall workforce within firehouses. Having more women can mean an opportunity for better community connections and outreach. Other benefits of a more inclusive firefighting workforce include:
- Providing diverse life experiences and ideas that can help teams on the scene craft solutions to long-standing problems.
- Expanded experiences and different ideas allows a department to become more flexible, proactive, and better able to adapt to new challenges.
- Having the makeup of each department better reflect the makeup of the community, the department can provide a higher level of service because personnel better understand community needs, issues and ideas to help resolve situations.
Women bring their own viewpoints and experiences to the fire service. Take for instance, Lizzie Watson who joined the Jackson Hole Fire/EMS in 2011 and earned the role of captain in 2020. As the article points out, ‘Tackling new challenges each day is one of the highlights of the job for Lizzie. But in a profession that remains majority male, sometimes she needs to confront challenges unrelated to emergency response. As one of only a handful of female firefighters on her team, Lizzie admits that “Sometimes you are forced into having to think about gender.” Like when she has to convince her friends’ children that she can, in fact, drive a fire truck—despite what TV shows or toys might signal. Or when people seem at a loss for what language to use to describe her when she arrives on the scene of a call.’ Lizzie points this and other gender issues out within this article that are important to take into consideration when pursuing what she feels is a rewarding and challenging career.
Another example is how women firefighters are also participating in firefighting activities outside the job, such as the prestigious firefighter challenge events held all over the country and throughout the world. One example is Lianne McAuley from the Stone Mills Volunteer Fire Department in Ontario, Canada who was actively pursuing Lion’s Den status in the Firefit/Firefighter Challenge.
Women participating in the fire service also opens up the opportunity to reevaluate and conduct research on the subjects of injuries, reproductive health, and even personal protective equipment (PPE) sizing.
Fire departments are encouraged to download “Emerging Health and Safety Issues Among Women in the Fire Service“ and for help with PPE and respiratory protection needs, please reach out to our health and safety specialists today.