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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.



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