By Jinnie Chua, Assistant Editor of In Public Safety
The fire service continues to face a significant gender gap. There are 1.16 million firefighters in the United States, but only 7 percent are women according to the National Fire Protection Association.
“We have to show women there is a place at the table for them,” said Kevin Kupietz, a fire instructor at Roanoke Rapids (NC) Fire Department and faculty member in the Emergency and Disaster Management program at American Military University. “The fire service should reflect the diversity in our communities.”
Firefighters engage with the entire community, so bringing in people of different genders, backgrounds and perspectives allows them to serve those communities better. This is all the more important at a time when fire departments across the country are struggling with low recruitment and retention rates.
“The gender gap is absolutely a priority for the fire service because it’s not only an issue of diversity but also of staffing levels,” said Kupietz.
In 2010, Kupietz conducted a study for the National Fire Academy on gender diversity in fire departments. Although he has seen the issue gain more traction, things aren’t changing as fast as he and many others in the fire service would like.
The Need to Reach More Female Recruits
“The fire service is a very white, male-dominated profession,” said Kupietz. Part of the reason it has been slow to diversify, he explained, is that firefighting is a profession steeped in family tradition, where for generations fathers have introduced it to their sons.
To include more women and people of color in the fire service, departments must develop strategies that appeal to recruits and potential volunteers who do not have family ties. It’s important that recruitment efforts reach a wider audience and different parts of the community.
In reaching more female recruits, the goal is not to find women who will fit in at the department, but who can add to it. “We don’t want female firefighters to be “one of the boys,”” said Kupietz. “That’s not what diversity is about. We want individuals to maintain different perspectives.”
Kupietz suggested several ways fire departments can encourage more women through their doors. Much of it comes down to promoting visibility. For example, departments can include female firefighters in banners, flyers and other promotional materials. Having female firefighters give presentations at events is also a very effective recruiting tool. If departments don’t have any female firefighters of their own, they can invite female firefighters from neighboring departments to represent them.
“We need more role models and leaders for young women to identify with,” said Kupietz. “If they can see these female firefighters, in their turnout gear, they can see the profession as an option for them.”
To help spread this message, fire departments can work with specific organizations, such as the Girl Scouts, to encourage girls and young women to consider a career with the fire service. They can also partner with the community to create programs like Camp Blaze, a fire training camp in Washington state for teenage girls.
Meeting the Physical Requirements
Fueling the gender gap is the misconception that women will not be able to keep up with the physical demands of being a firefighter. This is a vestige of unnecessary requirements in older versions of the Candidate Physical Ability Tests (CPAT) that all firefighters must pass, such as the ability to bench press one’s own weight.
Kupietz described how such requirements not only deterred women from pursuing careers in the fire service, but made male firefighters more resistant to women recruits. For example, a decade ago it might have been common to hear male firefighters say they didn’t want a woman on their crew because she wouldn’t be able to carry them out of a fire.
“We now realize no one is going to throw you over their shoulder and carry you out of a fire anyway,” said Kupietz. “We’re going to use the training and the methods that we’re taught and we’re going to drag you out to safety.”
The CPAT has since been updated, not to lower standards, but to more realistically represent what firefighters are trained to do in the field–and the updated criteria are more egalitarian. An emphasis is placed on aerobic endurance, stamina, and the ability to leverage your strength and experience to problem-solve and accomplish the task at hand.
“When it comes down to it, the profession is not about brute strength,” said Kupietz. “We need to make a concerted effort to show women that they can do the work and that it’s rewarding work.”
Inclusion is Key to Retaining Female Firefighters
Beyond recruitment and outreach strategies, there is also the matter of retaining female firefighters who do enter the field. Every firefighter must make an effort to ensure women are not excluded around the department.
“A particular problem we have in the fire service is we don’t purposely exclude, but we don’t make huge strides to include,” said Kupietz. “The truth is everyone has a place in the fire service.”
Guidelines on how firefighters should interact and conduct themselves can be set by the institution or the organization, but inclusion comes down to the actions of individual members, Kupietz said. Holding meals at the fire station or inviting someone to join a conversation can make all the difference.
“The family atmosphere is an incredibly important part of being a firefighter,” said Kupietz. “If you include people into that family atmosphere you’ve got members for life.”
As industries and professions across the board are striving for greater diversity and gender equality, the fire service does not intend to be left behind.
“We’re making a cultural change from a traditional boys’ club to now being inclusive to women and all minorities,” Kupietz continued. “There may still be bumps in the road, but I think we’ve crossed the bridge.”