– Executive Summary –

Women comprise only about 4 percent of the U.S. fire service’s career firefighting workforce.[1] The U.S. fire service is not designed to recruit and cultivate female talent. Currently, there are approximately 14,800 women, while 360,000 men serve as professional firefighters.[2] These numbers are higher among wildland firefighters and volunteer departments, as the coveted positions in municipal career departments have long been a stronghold of men. The fire service’s historical design and practice have influenced this inequity. The first woman was hired in 1974, but almost 50 years later, nationwide percentages of female personnel have not risen much above 4 percent, and more recently, in some major cities, numbers appear to be trending downward.[3]

This thesis examines the entire trajectory of a female firefighter’s career path from recruitment and initial onboarding to career development and retirement to identify core issues impeding the successful inclusion of women in the fire service. Specifically, it asks, which policies and practices serve as impediments to inclusion and which strategies should be developed to increase the quality and quantity of recruitment, retention, and retirement of female firefighters.

Physicality is the first gate, as it includes the initial fitness performance tests and the recruit academy, which are the most significant causes of “wash out” or elimination of female recruits. Physical requirements are comparable to those of the military’s special operations branches and tactical teams in law enforcement, as these are traditionally gender-neutral fitness tests that bear out similar results to the fire service’s gender-neutral entry tests.

Women firefighters often report experiencing “othering” or isolation from the dominant group.[4] Conflicting gender roles and societal expectations create further fracturing of women integrating into the male-dominated industry.[5] Socio-cultural issues include gender identity, social out-grouping and isolation in a predominantly male workplace, and honor challenges. Women firefighters in both the United States and Canada report similar phenomena with social othering, a source of recent concentration in academic studies.

Women experience different issues related to parenting in the fire service, including challenges with a lack of supportive protocols around pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. In the long term, childcare is often a struggle with the long shift work and unpredictable schedules around emergency work and the fire season. Family planning has been identified as a deterrent to recruitment and a cause for early departure from the career.

Promotional challenges are another distinct category, as women firefighters often suffer a cumulative effect of being denied desirable bids for busy firehouses, needing to outperform their competition, and experiencing distrust from subordinates unaccustomed to seeing a woman in a role of tactical leadership.[6] By defining these four compartments, the pervasive issues preventing women from joining the service and causing them to leave become more easily identifiable.

Problem-solving first begins with identifying the issue. As research and data gathering on women in fire is so sparse, there is no accurate data to date on the exact number of female firefighters, company officers, chief officers, or executive chief officers. A full census-tracking mechanism would require surveying women’s pay status (volunteer, combination, or career departments), rank, years of service, and specialties. Ideally, data collectors could create a portal for tracking hiring of new female personnel and retirements and departures from service. If these mechanisms were in place, the Department of Homeland Security might have a better sense of the demographics and state of the union in relationship to its first responders.

Recruitment has long been focused on seeking out and finding the best candidates. While that is still fundamentally necessary, outreach is not enough. Leaders need to realize they have a responsibility to attract quality candidates to their agencies. Improved recruitment and retention can be achieved through reputation building, a solid public image, and the development of supportive policies.

The fire service would do well to lean on the best practices of many successful businesses and prioritize psychologically safe and productive work. Apart from focusing on recruitment, it should take care of the women it already has—and acknowledge and support them. Women bring so much to the fire service as an industry. Moreover, as leaders of the most gender-imbalanced workforce in modern U.S. history, fire service executives are feeling increasing public pressure to improve integration. If the leaders’ intent is to create an inclusive workplace, the steps toward the goal must be clearly stated, understood by the entire group, initiated, and reassessed. It is up to the leaders and policymakers to change the current environment and pave the way for future success.

[1] “FAQs on Women in the Fire & Emergency Services,” Women in Fire, accessed January 1, 2021, https://www.womeninfire.org/faqs/.

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Men Accounted for About 75 Percent of Workers in Protective Service Occupations in 2020,” Economics Daily, October 15, 2021, https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2021/men-accounted-for-about-75-percent-of-workers-in-protective-service-occupations-in-2020.htm.

[3] Gabriel Greschler, “Women Still Make up a Fraction of Bay Area’s Firefighters,” Mercury News,November 29, 2021, https://www.mercurynews.com/2021/11/24/thats-not-showing-much-effort-santa-clara-county-fire-department-struggles-recruiting-female-candidates/.

[4] Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, A Fire Service for All: Exploring Ways to Further Diversity and Inclusivity for Women in the Canadian Fire Industry (Ottawa: Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, 2020), https://cdn.ymaws.com/cafc.ca/resource/resmgr/reports/updated_a_fire_service_for_a.pdf.

[5] “Diversity and Inclusion,” Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, accessed March 6, 2021, https://cafc.‌ca/page/diversandinclusion.

[6] Marcos O. Marimon et al., “Diversity and Inclusion Leaders in US Fire Departments Impact the Type and Number of Diversity and Inclusion Programs Offered,” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 62, no. 1 (January 2020): e13–16, https://doi.org/10.1097/JOM.0000000000001780.

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