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Women in Firefighting
by Cheryl Horvath

Fire service has a leadership crisis

The issues facing women in the fire service are telling of a systemic crisis of leadership

By Cheryl Horvath

After my last article, I received emails from various people around the country. Some offered thanks and support for continuing to carry the message on the importance of a diverse workforce.

Some gave me even more material to use in future columns about issues that women are confronted with. And some asked permission to reprint the article, which was nice recognition and another avenue to expose the issues women face across more audiences.

I have had the good fortune of meeting some amazing people in the fire service, from firefighters to chiefs, to magazine editors, to leaders of affinity organizations, to scholars, to political leaders, to vendors, and to members of other public safety professions confronting the same challenges we have in the fire service.

Throughout these brief interactions, I have met few brave enough to stand in front of a crowd and voice their heartfelt support on the issue of diversity in the context of their own failures. It has been a long haul of shaking my head wondering when the fire service would finally "get it."

Reason for hope
Why is it still an issue bringing women on the job, promoting women to front-line officer positions, or considering women in chief officer positions? Women lead Fortune 500 companies, women are in high-ranking positions in the military, two women have run for vice president, and we have real potential for a woman running in the next presidential election.

Recently, I received reason to hope that maybe some fire service leaders are finally getting it. IAFC President Bill Metcalf and Tucson Fire Chief Jim Critchley spoke at a conference hosted by the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services.

President Metcalf admitted that the fire service has failed in promoting diversity. I could not believe my ears when I first heard the words.

I made eye contact with various people sitting around me, and all of us had the same look of shock on our faces.

Then, Chief Critchley said that he had been confronted the day before by someone who challenged him to do more for women. He was told that it was not enough for fire chiefs to say they supported women, and that they were behind us and ready to be there for us.

Changing mindset
Instead, Chief Critchley was challenged to take the forward position on this issue, and lead from the front. Chief Critchley spoke clearly in admitting that there was more that he could, and should, do more for women in the fire service.

Standing before an audience of more than 200 conference attendees, two white male fire chiefs admitted failing women in the fire service. A truly cathartic moment for those of us who have been trying to represent and advocate on behalf of women for what seems like a lifetime.

President Metcalf offered two more issues that relate specifically to diversity. The first was that the fire service is in the midst of a leadership crisis due to the pending retirements of some of our most experienced leaders.

The second was the issue of behavioral health and the importance of fire departments offering programs to mitigate this latest industrial "hazard" that we are experiencing. I agree with the importance of these issues, but, pardon the interruption; we have a bit more to discuss regarding these two issues.

Leadership crisis
I would propose that in tandem with the inability of the fire service to sustain and grow diversity in the industry, we have had a leadership crisis for the last 30 years, starting when women first broke the barriers of entering the fire service.

How can I back up such an assertion?

Because I still hear and receive emails of the issues women confront. For example, two women who are in high-ranking positions in metro-size fire departments have recently been exposed to unethical management practices.

These unethical acts will significantly influence the ability of these two women to reach the highest-ranking position in their department. Both are highly qualified, highly educated, highly respected women. Both are being held back by other ranking chief officer making false accusations on performance issues or just frankly keeping women down.

And these women are defenseless. Their fire chiefs will not step in and correct the issues. If the women file an EEOC claim, their careers and reputation will take a beating. This is simply another failure in leadership.

Champions needed
The issue of behavioral health for women has been around for the same 30 years that we have been exposed to failed leadership. Women who are harassed, mistreated, shunned, discriminated against, etc … have been talking about behavioral health issues (like depression) for years. Yet, no one has been paying attention or admitting the significance of these issues.

Many women have left the service due to behavioral health issues. Respectfully, women are keenly aware of the failed leadership and behavioral health issues in the fire service. We are thankful that these issues are now being addressed on a broader scale.

Yet, our recruitment and retention numbers are diminishing. Women are leaving the service, retiring, and many, many departments do not have one woman on the job.

Have we missed our opportunity for women to reach critical mass in the fire service? Is it worth it for women to continue battling the same issues over and over? Will we overcome?

A universal problem
The good news is that the failure of leadership in the fire service is consistent with the scholarly opinion on leadership in general. Leadership development programs are failing across many industries.

You do not have to be a rocket scientist to make the connection that more leadership development programs — degree and otherwise — should equate to better leadership. However, many agree this is not the case.

An interesting perspective on leadership development was recently promoted through a TED talk by Roselinde Torres, senior partner and managing director of the Boston Consulting Group.

Torres offered up the following: the reason leadership development programs are not producing 21st century leaders is because many of these programs are designed around a traditional leadership model that was effective 20 years ago.

Today's leaders need to be prepared to deal with complexity and information flow at levels never seen before, she said. Leaders must be more global, digitally enabled and transparent.

You can watch the TED talk to fill in the gaps, but the final analysis comes down to leaders answering three questions for themselves.

Making change
First, where are you looking to anticipate change? Who are you spending your time with; what are you reading; and how are you distilling this into understanding where your organization needs to go?

Second, what is the diversity measure of your personal and professional stakeholder network? Who do you spend your time with — people like you or people different from you in any way possible so that you learn to establish trusting relationships that lead to the accomplishment of a common goal? Who are you listening to?

And last, are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past? Good leaders dare to be different.

Yes, President Metcalf and Chief Critchley, the fire service has failed. You both have shown tremendous courage in speaking to that failure and women do appreciate your support.

We will follow your lead. We will continue to be patient … for a little while longer. 

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.
Jerry Zimmerer Jerry Zimmerer Monday, April 28, 2014 8:09:19 PM no comment
Friedrich VonDeitsch Friedrich VonDeitsch Monday, April 28, 2014 8:38:41 PM All the talking points here that are well planned and deployed are but some of the reasons why women are struggling to find positions in any sector that has been formerly the responsibility of the people who have always been subjected to the harshest, most dangerous and thankless positions in any society... the men! Men are still, in this modern day of female liberation, expected to accept being discriminated against when those of us with the needed skill sets and desire to be "stay at home Dad's" are met with degrading, abusive and cruel attack campaigns by "feminist" groups. If the scenario were reversed? I have witnessed too many magazine, billboard and television ads depicting men as pigs, dogs, wolves or humans who "needed a woman to guide them" or they would surely be lost. If these same scenarios were aimed at women, the darkest, hottest and filthiest day in hell would be an enviable choice compared to the suffering that would be known conjured up by the females of the liberated, first world west. I have seen the most fearless and physically rugged men, shudder in fear when offered the picture of another mans suffering at the hands of his "master and trainer", his lawfully wedded wife! These men knew from experience the wrath of his own "Mr. Hyde" that lives inside his "sweet little woman", the person who may be excused from taking responsibility for attacking a man with rolling pins, frying clubs!, and not spend an hour in jail just because they are womb-men. Our society is so liberal and dismissive to its females that they are actually able to "get away with murder" if they can sway the judiciary into believing they were being abused or are too sweet and innocent to be punished for a crime that will earn the male of our species... free room and board.... in a gated community.... with 24/7 security for life. I too often witness men being assigned to help their female co-workers because the women are physically incapable of heavy lifting, or pretend to be, so the employer pays two people to do the job of one. This is to the feminists, equality in the work place. They want the same rate of pay too! Now comes this well educated professional, uniquely qualified and experienced individual, Chief Horvath sounding the alarm to make all who will listen take notice that there are people who have the talent, education, willingness and passion to do a thing but are being overlooked or worse, discriminated against when they try to give of themselves to core and community.... who are not men! Well Chief my response is ... welcome to the world of men! We suffer all that women do trying to realize our dreams and hopes, we just do not make so much noise about it. We just keep sticking our faces into the fan of life and dream on! I see at the end of your presentation you do exactly what makes men not try too hard to help your cause.. you state three things that must be done to perfect the needed change to move your cause forward. All of these changes it appears must be done by MEN! Again the females make demands on men in order to better the feminist agenda. Men did not have to rely on the feminists to create the world from sod, blood and tears. We just grabbed life by the throat and choked what we wanted out of it in our past, here in the present and it seems there will be no relief from the back breaking toil anytime in the future. I have always felt that women, in America especially, have had a quality of life few men will ever know just because they are born female. The men who do realize this level of freedom have either been born to wealth and privilege or used others as stepping stones... like women do. When females build the infrastructure after taming the deserts, jungles, oceans and sky's just like male's have been doing for all time and covet certain sectors as reward for being selfless, fearless and willing to face death to save a fool.... then have some group of radicals come and try to just "jump on the bus" and demand you respect them, and you do not resist and acquiesce to the demands that you make "three things happen" to allow this, then you will have my respect and total support. Because only after having given and done so much just to be forced to allow others to come and "sit at the banquet table" after having skirted around all the bleeding, sweating and crying, will you have earned anything from the men! F.Y.I. Chief, the reason men desire to face death surrounded by nothing but other men is simple. It is better for many of them to be there and enjoy the total freedom to just be who they are and not have to watch every step and word that is just not found anywhere else. Men were forced to allow females into the Citadel but there are still "all female institutions" where no man may attend. The right to privacy, a well worn escape route for females, does not exist for men. The list is long and terrifying of how many privileges females covet that are out of the reach of men and still you want more. In closing I wish to say to you, something men rarely hear from females ....Thank you! For this eye opening presentation that more than supports my point of view. Just start your own public service entities already! Get the funding, suffer the pain and take responsibility yourselves for all that follows, because it is a fact women are pound for pound of muscle tissue stronger than men and you are smarter and more capable in every way according to the feminist rhetoric, so there no good excuse for, your better than half of humanity, not to do your own thing. And if you wish it to be, do not include men. I am sure we will not mind :-) Be well and stay safe Chief Horvath. Fireman Fritz.. 10-7
Wyatt Smith Wyatt Smith Monday, April 28, 2014 9:20:08 PM Thank you for writing this. I believe that being more welcoming to non-white-male recruits is not just good for diversity's sake, but could also help address the dwindling number of volunteer firefighters. Less than a third of America's population are white men; you can't tell me that there aren't some amazing potential firefighters in the other two thirds.
Monday, April 28, 2014 9:40:12 PM I would be curious to see some research. How many men apply for firefighter jobs each year. How many women? also break those down by race? Then list how many jobs they are all applying for. Next, I would like to see how many from each group got hired. It is not enough to choose a section of the population and use those percentages to try to calculate who ought to be getting hired. It should be a representative number of the number of applicants. If there are 100 jobs and 990 men apply and 10 women apply, then it would seem to reason that 1 woman would be hired and 99 men. But, that actually happened, women would most assuredly cry discrimination. So the answer really is that women need to up their numbers. Also, what would happen if applicants filled out their paperwork and were given a number and no one would know their gender or race, how would the hiring process go then? Or do we not want a level playing field? Because the minute you make the requirements different for 1 group over another, that too is discrimination. those others deserve just as much of a chance at the job and if more qualified, deserve it more. Diversity be damned. And I for 1 want the most QUALIFIED person coming to my rescue and I don't give a rats asp if it is a man or a woman or if they were white or black or brown or whatever....
Monday, April 28, 2014 9:43:18 PM Now excuse me while I go unsubscribe from this newsletter because I don't need this holier than thou rhetoric occupying my thoughts. Good luck to all you firefighters out there, we appreciate you even if some of your own don't.
Jamie Goodlet Jamie Goodlet Sunday, May 04, 2014 12:45:51 PM Absolutely amazing brother! Well said!
Thomas Silvernail Thomas Silvernail Monday, May 05, 2014 2:01:24 PM Fire does not discriminate, neither should we. That being said, there used to be height and weight requirements when I joined the fire service(1972), 5'-7" and 140 lbs. Do you think those numbers were just plucked out of the air? It was based on the physical requirements it takes to perform the duties of a fireman. Some say all men are created equal, they aren't, men and women are not physically built the same, when the NOW movement started and women cried discrimination because most aren't 5' 7" and physically capable of passsing the agility tests, to appease them the standards were lowered, this not only allowed women who weren't able to perform the job, but it let men in as well. I have worked over the past 42 years with women who I had no problem with, very capable to perform the duties required, also had many who should not be on the job, the same will some of the men. In this line of work size does matter, it's a matter of life and death. Those who have college degrees may think, that it makes them qualified to be not only a fireman, but a chief officer. Fire fighting is a job that doesn't require brains, but brawn, and I don't mean like the guys that pose on calendars, They make look good, but because they have very little body fat, they have to eat, once they are drained, water and gatorade won't cut it. The next time you respond to a big fire, show your degree's to the fire and see if it goes out, if that doesn't work throw them on it, see if that works. I left the job, not by choice, but due to heart and lung disease, if you want to make a difference, instead of crying about not getting to be a chief, try making sure your firemen are doing their job and wearing their PPE at every fire, make sure those that are driving the rigs are qualified and use proper caution at all times, make sure rehab is being done often and the firemen are checked before they are sent back in. It's not about how many bugles you have, it's how well you take care of your people. A chief who surrounds him/herself with yes men or idiots to make themselves look smart, are fools! The smart chiefs will promote and put themselves among the smartest people he/she has, to make his job easier, mind you not every good fireman will make or even want to be an officer. I have seen people that were happy where they were and then got promoted and either had the power go to their head, or just simply missed being on the street with the boys. Be safe, stay low and mask up, everytime!
Angelette Holtman Angelette Holtman Sunday, May 11, 2014 7:08:48 PM The comments above are exactly what I would expect to see from a gender that is welcomed with open arms in this field just because of what is between their legs. Women have to prove themselves time and time again, every call, while the men get a slap on the butt followed by a Good Job! from the good ole boys just for showing up. I absolutely agree there are women that should not be out there fighting fire, as there are many men also! Changes in building construction and contents have dramatically changed the way we should be fighting fire (with our brains) and pure neanderthal brawn doesn't cut it anymore. Just because you can push around a 2 1/2" doesn't mean you're qualified.
Jim Hoffman Jim Hoffman Thursday, May 29, 2014 11:52:51 AM Cheryl. I had the pleasure as a Captain with Northwest to have several female firefighters on my shifts. I will say that they always kept up with events going on during fire/EMS responces and always did a fantastic job. While several have left Northwest one that stands out is B/C Leigh Foss, she has moved herself along very professionally in her career at Northwest. As a volunteer Chief for a small Pennsylvania town I have also had the pleasure to have several female firefighters who have gone above and beyond in their duties. I agree that the fire service has lagged behind in keeping our female firefighters advancing in all areas, and wish that there were more females in this country that would step forward and become part of this proud profession. keep moving forward ladies and don't give up

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