The Fire Ninja on women in the fire service
on 27 August, 2013

Want to get an interesting conversation going? Ask an ‘old-school’ firefighter what they think about women in the Fire Service. If you want to get a really interesting answer, look around conspiratorially before you ask the question and then after you ask it whisper; ‘Off the record.’

It might just be me, but I’m pretty sure that whatever answer you get, it’s guaranteed to be interesting. So, let’s address it shall we?

Women in the fire service. In this day and age, you’d think it wouldn’t even really be a topic of discussion ….right? Well, remember our closest parallel industry to the fire service would be the military and they are only just now making progress towards the discussion of women in combat. It’s 2013 and they are still having that discussion, so it’s unrealistic to think that the Fire Industry would have ‘resolved this issue’ and had moved on to other things.

There’s quite a bit of history recorded on women in the fire service, some of it dating back almost 200 years. While researching this blog, I came across several references to a group of women who organized themselves into a Fire Brigade at Girton College in the United Kingdom. They identified a need and established an organizational structure to meet the need based on the model offered by local ‘all-male’ departments at the time. The year was 1878, nearly 135 years ago. Six years later, in 1884 an article was written about the unheard of ‘all female’ fire brigade in the Harvard Crimson (the Harvard University Newspaper)

 Below is a paragraph describing the brigade. (Author unidentified)

‘Armed with large tack hammers, the firegirls will break open doors and windows and place step ladders against the wall of the burning building to assist the inmates to escape. That the firegirls should actually ascend the step ladders in the full gaze of the public, and while the fierce light of the fire plays about their ankles is, of course, unthinkable. Hence it is difficult to see how they could carry the hose-we should say water pipe-to the upper story of a building, and how they could render much service except in case of a fire confined strictly to the ground floor.’

The patronizing tone of the author is unmistakable, but in that day and age was it intended to be demeaning? The author is referring to the societal influenced parameters that were placed on women at the time. Skirts were intended to cover everything, and exposed skin was considered shameful. So it was ‘preposterous’ that these women would actually climb ladders, which would expose their bare ankles in the light of the fire!

Almost laughable in today’s standards but it’s important to recognize that as where we’ve evolved from as a society.

There are plenty of historical references to women in the fire service, but let’s get down to the bare bones of the issue. Should women be allowed to serve as firefighting personnel?

To me, and based solely on my personal experience in the Fire Service, it ultimately comes down to ‘cards.’

You know what I’m talking about.

 The ‘female card,’ ‘the race card’, ‘the sexuality card’…etc.

As long as there have been fights for equality, there have been ‘cards’ that come along with them.

In my experience in the fire industry, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a female that never used her ‘card’ and I’ve had the stress of working with a female that used her ‘card’ every chance she could.

Have I confused you yet? Let me explain by defining the word equal.

Equal‘as great as, the same as.’ ‘like or alike in quantity, degree or value’  ‘uniform in operation and effect.’

Did you notice that nowhere in those definitions, were the words; ‘but, sometimes or except when’ used?

That’s because in our industry we are dealing with the added gravity of life and death. Either a person CAN do everything needed to save lives and protect property or they CAN’T.

When it’s simplified to that extreme, there’s no room for conditions or exceptions.

Can the person, male, female, white, black or purple perform the needed functions of the job?

Not; ‘Can they perform them with the help of a step stool? Or, can they perform them if they are given time to warm up first?’

‘Can they perform them?’

 Cut and Dry.

So if as an industry, we say that one of the required physical activities of our profession is to drag a charged hose line a specific distance and the candidate in question can’t do it, should they be allowed to serve?

We live in an age of unheard of political correctness but all of that nonsense goes out the window when there’s a life on the line!

Think about it!

If it was your family member who was minutes away from an excruciating death by fire, and the person that was sent to rescue them was incapable of physically doing what needed to be done…where would your stance on equality end up?

Now of course, there are very few things that are that simple in today’s world. There are always shades of grey right? But shouldn’t it come down to that basic principle when the stakes are at their highest?

This brings me back to my personal experience.  I’ve had the honor to work with a female that was able to perform every physical aspect of firefighting, equal to and in some cases better than her male colleagues. She could do the job and she did it well. She was ‘one of the guys’, with the thick skin that’s required to function around a bunch of guys. She could belch and fart with the best of them, and she never shied away from hard work. Outside of the reproductive organs that she was born with, she was exactly like any other hard-working firefighter.

I underlined those last three words intentionally. Regardless of race, color or ethnicity, people are going to be people. You’re gonna have lazy white guys and lazy black guys. You’re gonna have those that work hard and those that float along. I’ve seen it in every department that I’ve worked. But the frustrating part, the maddening part is those damn ‘cards.’

The polar opposite of the hard-working female that I mentioned above was one that I worked with that took every opportunity to do less, to short-cut, to cheat or to half-ass. It had absolutely nothing to do with her gender, she was just a worthless employee. With any other employee, a manager could make quick work of an employee like that simply by tracking their performance and providing a paper trail showing their inability and/or desire to improve. But not when there is a ‘card’ in the picture.

The ‘female car’” that this person used was dropped at the mere mention of her performance failures.

‘I’m being discriminated against!’

‘I’m being held to a higher expectation!’

‘It’s not fair that I be asked to do the same thing because my body is shaped differently!’

There wasn’t the remotest truth to any of that, but because she waved that card around every chance she got, she had to be treated differently by everyone involved. From the guys that worked with her directly and had to pick up her never-ending slack, to the officers in the station who had to tip-toe around her so that she wouldn’t focus her feminist high-beams on them publicly and interfere with their career track.

It was absolutely miserable, and the saddest part about it is that it fractured the shift she was on. The more issues that arose, the more that she waved that “card” around, the more the guys started ignoring her. We called it ‘ghosting’.

Was that the right thing to do? Was that the right way to handle it? Don’t judge lest you be judged! The guys were afraid to talk to her because they didn’t know if she would misinterpret or intentionally misconstrue something they’d said into a gender complaint to the Chief. They couldn’t feel comfortable around her, so they stopped treating her like one of the guys, because she continually made it a point to highlight that she was not. So they withdrew, they ‘turtled-up’ and they ‘ghosted’ her on every shift that they worked.

Remember folks we’re talking about a team of people that are supposed to be coming to rescue you and your children. Now, due to ‘gender’ issues, we’ve got a fractured shift that doesn’t even work together? How does that translate to their ability to function as a team?

Was that caused by her gender or by her personality and attitude?

To me it’s those ‘cards’ that mess everything up.

Should women work in the fire service?

Absolutely! As long as they do the job, do it the way it should be done, and leave their ‘cards’ for their civilian life.

  • Operation Florian

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