Firefighting has traditionally been a man’s job. Like most of the older professions, society deemed what jobs were acceptable for men and women to hold. As those older sensibilities were replaced with more modern ones, traditionally unrepresented groups have begun to make an impact on today’s modern fire service.
Being a female firefighter in today’s fire service is hard. The job is very demanding physically and emotionally, and women are still working hard at breaking barriers and facing pushback from the old guard of the fire service. The service is changing, and female firefighters are becoming more and more popular. But it is a hard road for even the easiest journey to becoming a female firefighter.
The goal of this article is not to discourage women from pursuing the fire service. Rather, the goal is to try and present to women entering the fire service a realistic view of the hardships they may incur. There are extremely successful women in the fire service. Women have made it to the top of large fire departments as Fire Chiefs, including Phoenix, Arizona, Fresno California, and Kansas City, Missouri.
So Where are We Now?
While women are making strides in the fire service, it has been a long, uphill battle. The fire service has been a career path dominated almost exclusively by men. Much like the military or police force, the fire force relied on strong, able-bodied, and at times intimidating men to do an extremely physical job.
But times are changing. While the physical demands are still there, firefighting has evolved into a mental game as much as a physical game. Newer technologies and the benefits of studies and data collection have changed the way the fire service approaches firefighting.
New roles and responsibilities have also opened the door beyond the traditional stereotypical firefighter from 50 years ago. Cities and communities look at fire department leadership to do more than just manage fire incidents. And in fact, many Fire Chiefs do not expect to be present on mist incidents as the role of Fire Chief has expanded too far more administrative and support functions.
Breaking the Brass Ceiling
The 1980s saw the first efforts to bring females into the career fire service. Many had been serving in volunteer fire departments by then, but on the career side of the fire service, female firefighters were almost unheard of.
Now women are part of more and more fire departments. Recent studies have women making up 4% of firefighters in the career fire service and 11% of the firefighters in the volunteer fire service. There are roughly 50 female fire chief officers, and just over 150 female fire chiefs in the volunteer fire service. While not a very impressive number, it does continue to grow and will gradually creep higher and higher.
The rank insignias are worn by more and more women, and the introduction of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) saw more women, skilled as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) and Paramedics, work arm in arm with the fire service. Women who perform well in the fire service continue to change attitudes and make the presence of females in the firehouse more and more prevalent.
There is still a long way to go to change the fire service as a culture. The aging out and retirement of a lot of the “old guard” of the fire service, combined with new social norms and technological advancements make the idea of becoming a firefighter more and more attractive to many women. However, for the near future at least, women need to have some thick skin to put up with the attitudes and actions they may encounter as a career firefighter.
Cultural Challenges of Female Firefighters
Some career firefighters and officers feel like hiring women in the fire service are being pushed on them, making them more resistive. There is a trend in the fire service to try and make fire departments represent the citizenry they protect, meaning a fire district that protects 55% men and 45% women and 60% white and 40% minorities will seek to hire 45% women and 40% minorities.
Over the years, both the career and volunteer fire service has been dominated by white males. Many departments have tried to aggressively change this but have struggled to find recruits that are both interested in the fire service and are physically and mentally able to handle the job. This long history and the current trend to change the make-up of the fire service is why some current career firefighters are resistive to the idea of female firefighters.
Much like the military, the fire service has changed a lot of long-standing standards in physical and mental requirements to make the service more inviting and available for hiring female firefighters. Some of these changes have been a long time in the making while others reflect direct efforts to make the possibility of hiring female firefighters more likely. Therefore, a lot of the old-timers take issue with the hiring of female firefighters.
A typical firehouse is currently made up of men. They kid each other, tend to curse and swear, pull pranks, and have pretty brash personalities that revolve, at times, around a lot of crude storytelling and one-upmanship. They are usually all Alpha males waiting for their chance to move up or otherwise make an impact as a firefighter. A female firefighter must navigate this carefully.
While nobody should tolerate any illegal or unethical behavior or comments, female firefighters tend to fit in best by being a part of this camaraderie. Being able to goof off and be comfortable around a couple, immature at times, men on her shift will help a lot with fitting in. There should be an expectation that her shift would change if she were uncomfortable with certain behaviors, but that might be a struggle that would require patience and perseverance on her part, much like it is for any new hire who does not fit the typical mold of a career firefighter.
Hiring Challenges of Female Firefighters
The first step in the hiring process is making it through the hiring process. The challenges are both physical and mental at this point. The woman being tested or interviewed is seen by some as an intruder in a “man’s” field. Incapable or inferior when it comes to doing the same job or amount of work as their male counterparts. While these attitudes are slowly disappearing in the fire service, they still exist in many departments.
Bear in mind that some personnel involved in the hiring process may not have any experience in interviewing or testing female candidates. Every aspect of the hiring process is designed to physically and emotionally challenge potential hires to see how they perform in potentially stressful or challenging situations, and for female candidates, this may seem unusual or particularly challenging.
Most hiring processes begin with a physical agility portion of the testing that is designed to eliminate many candidates. As mentioned earlier, some of the physical testing criteria have changed to make it a bit easier. Earlier experiments with letting women take separate physical agility tests or requiring male candidates to wear weight vests have for the most been abandoned. Today most candidates, regardless of sex, take the same test.
Despite an easing of some of the test portions, female candidates need to be prepared for a test that will challenge their physical strength and endurance. Physical attributes will limit the potential for successfully passing the physical agility test, but that is the same for any candidate. Female candidates need to research and be aware of the different stages of the physical agility test to endure they are prepared. Some specific training may be necessary to build the strength and endurance needed to pass.
After the physical agility test, there will often be an interview. The panel interviewing the candidates usually represents a broad spectrum of the department, represented by firefighters and officers with varying years of experience. These questions usually have many generic interview questions but also involve some scenarios and information exclusive to the fire service.
The interview process is another time where a female candidate may meet a bit of resistance from some members of the panel. Some members may still have the mindset that women should not be in the fire service, and their mannerisms and interaction may reflect that. The best strategy is to persevere through it and focus on the members of the panel who have an open enough mind to give you an unbiased shot.
After advancing beyond the physical agility test and the interview, the process varies depending on the department. Many include a polygraph test and some type of psychological exam. Many may also include a separate Chief’s interview if the candidate advances that far. Make sure as a female candidate that you are familiar with each department’s hiring process. Any advantage you can gain is beneficial.
On the Job Challenges of Female Firefighters
Once hired, there are numerous factors on the job that will continue to make it difficult, at least initially, to be a female firefighter. Breaking barriers around the firehouse and the emotional toll of emergency response calls on the job can continue to make it more difficult for female firefighters than their male counterparts.
As a new firefighter in a firehouse, female firefighters may be faced with challenges with regards to privacy, team building, and general comfort levels. While most fire departments try to make accommodations for female firefighters, many are faced with budget restrictions that limit their ability to do so.
For example, many older firehouses have common showers, restrooms, and bunkrooms. Solutions such as male and female schedules for showers and bathrooms and partitions in sleeping areas are common. As new firehouses are built and remodeled, many are using a more private bedroom model where each firefighter has a room with a bathroom/shower.
Wondering what could disqualify you from becoming a firefighter? Check out our article HERE!
While these are uncommon right now, it is a possibility for some departments. Some departments try to base female firefighters out of certain stations that are already equipped with facilities more conducive to providing privacy and more appropriate housing for shifts made up of mixed sexes.
The emotional toll of emergency calls has also proven difficult for female firefighters to process. Biological differences between the male and female firefighters affect the way they process emergency calls. When faced with difficult or traumatic calls women tend to be more emotional and impacted by the calls. Ironically, processing calls this way has proven to more effective long term than the stereotypical male who bottles it up.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects firefighters in high numbers. The long-term emotional toll of traumatic emergency calls affects every firefighter. Some can process it healthily, and that includes at times simply walking away. This emotional toll has been cited by many female firefighters as the excuse they left the fire service.
Women interested in making firefighting a career should certainly pursue it. Despite potential current difficult circumstances, they are quickly being mitigated throughout the entire fire service. Now is a great time to challenge the old norms and be part of the positive changes in the fire service.
Is hard to be a volunteer female firefighter?
The volunteer fire service differs in many ways from the career fire service. This can be beneficial for women who would like to contribute to their community by being a firefighter. As the article stated, there are many more female firefighters in the volunteer fire service than in the career alternative. Many of the stressors mentioned in this article are not as big of an issue on the volunteer side.
The volunteer fire service tends to be less judgmental than the career side. The volunteer service has already adapted over the years to accept members based on what they can contribute, not necessarily based on a common standard all should meet. This allows for women to become a part of the service and at times feel more welcome and a part of the group.
They can also pick and choose their times and level of commitment. Women who may have families can still contribute, but, unlike a career job, they can prioritize their involvement based on other needs, much like their male counterparts in the volunteer fire service can do.
To learn how to best prepare and study for your firefighter exam click here.
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Hi! I’m Shawn Chun and I’m so grateful that you’re here.
Civil servants are some of the hardest working, most generous people I know. I have been passionate about all types of civil service career paths for years now and enjoy sharing everything I continue to learn about them.
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