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Women in Firefighting
by Cheryl Horvath

Same old story: The biggest issues facing women firefighters today

The tales of two women highlight the challenges many women face pursuing their dream of being firefighters

By Cheryl Horvath

What are the issues women firefighters face today? It's an easy question to answer as the issues are the same as they have been for the 30-plus years that women have been trying to serve in one of the oldest and most honorable professions.

How do I know that the issues are still the same? Because I receive phone calls, emails and Facebook messages from women all over the world, asking for guidance and advice.

Although it has been two years since I stepped down as president of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services (iWomen), I still hear the problems. In some cases, I even witness these same issues. Here are a couple of samples.

Recently a young firefighter contacted me regarding problems she was experiencing at her fire department. For the sake her privacy, we'll name this young women Carol.

Carol's story
Carol is the only woman firefighter on her job — the previous women firefighter quit years ago. Carol has been on the job for four years, having served previously for another department before she moved to a different part of the country (a more urban area) for personal reasons. And before we decide to pass judgment on the "personal reasons" part, think about a gal following her guy as a personal reason since that is the case here.

Carol was well respected at her previous department and very competent, never receiving a negative performance evaluation or any other type of performance-related correction.

During her short time at her new department, she has been ordered to discontinue studying for a college degree on-duty; has been judged as ineffective when she has taken the initiative to ask clarifying questions after emergency responses or decided to take on additional training on her own at the station; and has been told by other male firefighters that some of the officers in the department are "out to get her."

Carol has an extremely pleasant, cheerful personality, which in the past has enabled her to get along with everyone. Unfortunately, she is feeling that some now judge her pleasant personality as a sign of weakness. Oh yeah, did I mention that Carol is a fitness freak?

Carol is thinking about leaving the service, despite the fact that she absolutely loves being a firefighter. She is depressed and feels like she has no one to turn to since she is the only woman on her job. Carol walks into the station every day uncertain of who will help her at work or who will attack her.

One metropolitan captain
I received a Facebook message from a captain at a metropolitan department. This captain is very experienced and has served in various line and staff positions in her department.

She wrote that the department has many stations built in the last 10 years with women's locker rooms that the male firefighters have either taken over or moved into on the shifts that do not have women. Occasionally women are scheduled overtime in those same stations or get detailed out to fill a position, and they have to share the space with the men.

In some of the older stations, the male captains have taken over the private sleeping quarters that were originally built for the women. One department decided to "solve" this problem by placing the key to the women's locker room in the captain's office, so the women have to ask permission to use the space.

In 2013 we are still talking about private locker rooms and sleeping areas for women? Women who, by design, are supposed to have access to these facilities have to keep asking permission to use those spaces? Please place yourself in their boots and imagine having to ask permission to use a space that was originally designed for you to use whenever you wanted.

The unfortunate norm
I have listened to so many similar stories in the last 20-plus years that I have been in the fire service. When you finish reading this article, do a web search for "firefighter harassment lawsuits" and you'll see some of the following:

  • March 2013 — Former Orange Township firefighter wins harassment award of $1.7 million.
  • February 2013 — Former Florida firefighter awarded $440,000 in harassment suit.
  • October 2012 — Phoenix firefighter wins $70,000 lawsuit.
  • November 2012 — Former Barre (Vt.) firefighter settles harassment case for $250,000.

I found more than $2.5 million awarded in damages the last five months in a 5-minute search. These are for the women who had the support to step up and fight, which many more women do not have.

These are also three out of four women who are no longer firefighters — 75% of this small sample are no longer firefighters. The time, effort and money that their fire departments spent recruiting and training these women is wasted; these are public funds, by the way. These are the same public funds that are being spent to pay off the lawsuits.

And fire chiefs still ask why they cannot recruit women.

Over the next few months, I'll continue to share these issues. Maybe a light will go on for some, maybe not. But most certainly what is happening is that the public is becoming increasingly aware of the issues inside the fire stations.

Some departments may be able to fool their public in to thinking these issues are not occurring in their jurisdiction. And in some fire departments across the country, that may be the case.

To those fire chiefs, and more importantly, fire officers who are accepting responsibility of the actions and attitudes inside your firehouses, and making the appropriate course corrections, thank you. You are few and far between.

Check out this link if you are interested in learning more about the history of women firefighters at FDNY.

About the author

Cheryl Horvath is a division chief at the Northwest Fire District in Arizona. She is a past president of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, and served on the International Association of Fire Chiefs' FRI program planning committee. She served as an instructor with the Illinois Fire Service Institute for 15 years. In addition to holding a bachelor's of science degree in program management from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Chief Horvath is pursuing a master's degree in public administration.

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Robert Avsec Robert Avsec Wednesday, May 29, 2013 12:51:01 PM Great piece, Cheryl! So unfortunate that such a piece is still as pertinent--maybe more so--today as it was 30 years ago. One of the more memorable statements that I've heard in my lifetime is, "You can tell the character of a man based upon how he treats the women and children in his life." Perhaps we'd be further along with making women part of the fire service in the USA if more male firefighters, especially officers, lived by that credo.
Katie Peavy Katie Peavy Thursday, May 30, 2013 7:41:23 AM I have been fortunate that the fire department I volunteer at has had many female firefighters who have paved the way so that was never an issue. The city department that I am currently testing for also has female firefighters including one Battalion Chief. Hopefully because these women have paved the way for me, I won't have to go through what other women go through on fire departments, but if I have to be the one to pave the way for other women in the fire service, I will gladly take the hardship so future female firefighters won't have to.
Jenifer Jo Phelps Jenifer Jo Phelps Thursday, May 30, 2013 11:16:38 AM I am the only female at my department that i volunteer at but thank god i really don't have it that bad, I push myself twice as hard so know i will not take anyshit from anyone. i was brought up around the fire service so i know what is expected of me but push my self even more so it shows i am just as capable of doing what they do! And to pave a road for my daughter who want to be in the fire service as well as soon as she is old enough!
John Drady John Drady Friday, May 31, 2013 3:21:27 PM What Robert has shared below says it all. We as men can change this by speaking up when we hear or witness this behavior. To not speak up or to simply turn your back, makes us part of the problem. It is no different than bullying. It only prevails if you remain silent.
David Curtis David Curtis Sunday, June 02, 2013 10:01:04 AM If you are the only female in your department what fire department are you now in? HA HA
Chris Cochran Chris Cochran Sunday, June 02, 2013 10:05:08 AM Unfortunate for many reasons. The biggest reason is, if she feels that way walking in...How the hell is she supposed to trust her crew in a fire?
Joyce Wetherton Joyce Wetherton Sunday, June 02, 2013 10:27:41 AM At the department I volunteer at we do not have that issue with the other volunteers, you have to prove yourself to be part of the team. We encourage women to be part of the department. It doesn't matter male or female if you can do the job we want you. Some of the career guys have more of a problem because you are a female & a volunteer but that hasn't stopped our department from moving forward. And having a Chief like we do that doesn't put up with any crap from volunteers or the career guys. We are a volunteer department and everyone does the same job. When I started 7 yrs ago there was one female, now half our department is female and as Asst. Chief I have shown you can start at the bottom and move up, it only takes hard work and dedication. Everyone needs to remember we all do the job for the same reasons.
Keith Dutton Keith Dutton Sunday, June 02, 2013 10:34:02 AM Leadership starts at the top, and in your examples, it's clear the leaders are not practicing and enforcing proper behavior towards these women. They are dinosaurs and need to go.
Tina Ravyn Newman Tina Ravyn Newman Sunday, June 02, 2013 10:50:34 AM welcome to the stark realities of being a woman firefighter.
Rene Irick Rene Irick Sunday, June 02, 2013 10:55:33 AM It's sad that what should be a family can not get along, and show a little respect to each other. I just wonder if the treat the mothers and sister that way and would they let there fellow firefighter treat them in that same way? Our station is are second home we all live as if we were one big family, sharing the house, bunks, showers, kitchen, living quarters. we have private showers so there is no need for segregation. we all trust each other on the fire line, and in our house, when we rack out we know we are in the safest place we could be. everyone has each other back. THAT IS WHAT FAMILY IS ALL ABOUT. you trust you family and you should be able to trust you extend fire family, So come on guys grow up and treat our sister firefighter like you would your own sisters and mothers.
Lynn Murphree Lynn Murphree Sunday, June 02, 2013 1:30:25 PM I am the chief of a volunteer dept that has women on it, Iwill put them up against any of the men.
Virginia Sattler Waterson Virginia Sattler Waterson Sunday, June 02, 2013 4:41:22 PM Great points and you do have to have a thick skin to work as a female firefighter. I've had up and down moments in my 12 years. It is hard to hang in there at times because I know that I'm still viewed as a problem rather then a asset. But my community rewards me over and over with their feedback, so I stay in it. Have been allowed to become a Instructor and use it to promote the need for CHANGE. I've had good results so far. Management sets the tone for any Department and they should be reviewed for this issue OFTEN.
Terry Allen Terry Allen Monday, June 03, 2013 12:06:36 AM If a woman can handle her own end, and is willing to lay it on the line.then she is due as much respect as any male firefighter.
Iznaya Kennedy Iznaya Kennedy Monday, June 03, 2013 1:28:01 AM Why would these men use their energy to find fault with a woman, instead of just working with her so that all members of a crew are performing at their best? Some kind of power trip is all I can think of :(
The Sisters of Fire/Female Firefighters: NJFC's The Sisters of Fire/Female Firefighters: NJFC's Tuesday, June 04, 2013 12:14:17 AM Thanks Cheryl for telling it like it really is. I am a female FF in NH and have started a facebook page for support of the "Sisterhood" and I am stunned at how many female FF's are still being harassed and abused even. I started this page in March 2013 and at times it has had over 8000 people looking at it. Male FF's comment and like many of the articles I post as well. I am very interested to see what will come of your discoveries and hope that you will be able to open up a can of worms that most people (in the Fire Service) would like us to believe has long ago been taken care of. My story is similar to these women. I just recently gave up my dream to become a career FF. Too much resistance and I guess being a career Paramedic and part time FF will have to be enough for me. Please check out my page and feel free to comment or post anything. These woman need support and that's what I am doing my best to do for them. Thanks for doing this series or articles. Here is the link to the page >> << and here is the link to my personal page if you would like to friend request me.
The Sisters of Fire/Female Firefighters: NJFC's The Sisters of Fire/Female Firefighters: NJFC's Tuesday, June 04, 2013 12:15:14 AM <
Jenifer Jo Phelps Jenifer Jo Phelps Tuesday, June 04, 2013 4:08:53 AM ok, smarty, I am the only female on the fire side haha! the others are emt first responders.
Lee Ann McKay Lee Ann McKay Saturday, August 10, 2013 12:14:46 AM The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it." Albert Einstein
Lee Ann McKay Lee Ann McKay Saturday, August 10, 2013 12:18:30 AM The core problem becomes a safety issue. If you are dismissed by the team as not being able to do the job, you either are run over or taken out of the mix. This becomes a safety issue to only for the woman but also for the other team members.
Hollie Broughton Hollie Broughton Friday, February 14, 2014 12:23:22 PM I have to have an open mind when I read this. I am a Volunteer. And I have had many years of perfecting the " fight fire with fire " attitude. This is not the only place that has this problem. And I have been in many of those. Many men have a view of women being the Lover, wife, Mother. Deep down, this is a reality smack. So now, we have to show them we are capable of being eye to eye with him. I went to the Academy with Instructors that didn't want me there. The best thing I could do is show him I wasn't there to stomp and snort, just do the job. And that made them even more mad. Because determination irritates. But there are so many women that do beat their chest, and demand that they be noticed. This hurts the ones that are fighting along side that guy at the fire. That's all they want to do. And bullying goes on everywhere and with both sexes. Case in point of the " No Hazing. " There is a reason why that has passed. And men haze men also. It is a cowardly act, no matter who does it. I have a great crew to work with. I love them like my Brothers. And by the way, did I mention I have had 2 strokes and have partial paralysis? It is not a handicap, and I will do my best to outdo them any day. And they know it, because I took them with the job. And I am damn good at my job. Not because I'm just a woman, but I'm surrounded by awesomeness.
Monday, April 28, 2014 9:56:47 PM so has anyone looked to see if there are other reasons the men have "Taken Over" or moved into sections built for the women? Is it possible the station has a lot of men and there are not enough lockers for them? Is it a resource issue? or do we just use the situation to bolster an argument? Just asking...
Lisa Cota Theberge Lisa Cota Theberge Friday, August 01, 2014 8:08:36 PM Thank you Cheryl for sharing this. It is a culture that will only change if more women stand up and fight the fight. I've been isn't easy. I won my case and kept my job that I love so dear! I have 14.5 years in as a Career FF Medic. On top of my 15 yrs as a Volunteer. Although it was the worst time in my life...I know now that I have made a difference.

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