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Audit finds number of Pittsburgh female FFs well below national average

The low number of female firefighters has led the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire to use a more standardized, widely used physical exam


Children of Pittsburgh Firefighters carry the firefighters union banner down Grant Street in Pittsburgh’s Labor Day Parade Monday, Sept. 4, 2023. (Sebastian Foltz/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

By Megan Guza
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — The number of female firefighters across the United States has grown over the past years but remains far from representative of the 51% of the population made up by women, a data point that holds particularly true in Pittsburgh where a recent audit found less than 1% of city firefighters are women.

First responder professions — police, EMS professionals, and firefighters — have long struggled with gender representation that mirrors the country.

As of 2019, about 35% of EMTs and paramedics in the U.S. were women, according to research from the Journal of the American College of Emergency Physicians, up slightly from 31% in 2011. And in policing, about 13% of sworn law enforcement officers are women.

Firefighting seems to have struggled the most in terms of gender diversity among its ranks: across the country, women make up just 5% of all career firefighters and 11% of volunteer firefighters.

[RELATED: Igniting a change – Recruiting and retaining female firefighters in a male-dominated occupation]

Out of Pittsburgh’s 706 fire bureau employees, five are women — just under 1%, according to the audit of the Bureau of Fire by city controller Michael Lamb. Out of the three recruit classes that graduated in 2020, 2021 and 2022, only one woman graduated from the fire academy.

It’s not a new problem in Pittsburgh. In 2019, the city contracted the National Testing Network to study the fire bureau’s hiring practices and determine what barriers might be keeping women from applying to the bureau and, for those who do apply, from succeeding.

The city has made moves to try to address the disparity. In 2022, the fire bureau held its inaugural Girls Fire Camp with the goal of drawing more interest in the job.

“Firefighters engage with the community, so getting people from different backgrounds, genders and perspectives enhances our department’s ability to better serve our community,” Lisa Epps-Cuda, leader of the camp, said ahead of the inaugural session.

Among other activities, the girls took part in some of the physical tests that often trip up women trying to become firefighters.

Indeed, the physical exam was among the talking points in the audit.

“One way to enlist more female firefighters is to make sure that the application process is fair to people of all demographic groups while still making sure that new hires are prepared for the job,” the audit noted. “A fair, but tough, hiring process should entice more potential applicants and increase the competition for available spots.”

Among the issues with the physical exam was the use of a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) during testing. While that is what firefighters are expected to carry while in the field, “it is both very awkward to carry and not readily available to practice with before the exam.”

It also examined how few women make it from the application process to career firefighter.

In 2021, 406 applicants to the bureau finished the written exam, 6.7% of whom were female. Of those who passed the written exam, 283 completed the physical exam — about 5.3% were women.

Of those 283, 210 made the civil service eligibility list. The other 73 either failed or chose not to continue in the process. Of the 210 who moved on, only 1.9% were women.

“Starting with 5.3% of applicants being female for the physical exam and ending with 1.9% of the female applicants making the eligibility list represents a loss of 64.2%,” the audit pointed out.

The city, as of this year, which wasn’t covered in the audit, has started transitioning to a more standardized and widely used physical exam. The exam uses a weighted vest to simulate the heft of SCBA gear and is “more readily available to applicants for practice.”

Beyond the stats and data are more nuanced issues, including the lack of paid family leave for city firefighters — despite the fact that unions for police and EMS have successfully negotiated such leave into their contracts.

Ralph Sicuro, president of the union representing Pittsburgh firefighters, told the auditors that his union had been fighting for paid family leave “for a number of years.”

“Our system from stations to policies and even equipment was never designed for or even given consideration to female firefighters,” Mr. Sicuro told auditors. “We have a government that talks a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion, but we don’t do anything to address it.”

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Facilities pose another barrier, as most firehouses past a certain age have facilities for what was, at the time, an all-male staff. Those facilities include locker rooms, restrooms, showers and bunk rooms. In Pittsburgh, four of 30 firehouses have separate accommodations.

One of the city’s five female firefighters told auditors that her firehouse had a separate bathroom and shower room but no separate or private sleeping space.

“She felt that her firehouse afforded her adequate privacy but other firehouses where she might work did not have any facilities by gender,” the report said, “which can create an awkward living space for all firefighters.”

The audit continued: “She did report that her male coworkers have been willing to share their space.”

The audit pointed to Mt. Lebanon as a community that has taken the right steps to accommodate female firefighters, noting that the fire station was built in 2002 with individual bunkrooms and female locker rooms, restrooms and showers.

Chief Nick Sohyda said he worked at the borough’s previous firehouse and can attest to the accommodations.

“There were no separate facilities for women,” he said. “We had individual bunk rooms in there, but there were no ladies’ locker rooms, there were no separate showers.”

Chief Sohyda said the need for separation doesn’t just come down to an issue of gender, but rather one of privacy.

“I think it’s even societal nowadays that people just want some privacy in the job,” he said. “You’re not in a wide open room with eight other people that are snoring and one’s watching television and one’s making noise.”

That said, women are still valuable and needed in professions like firefighting, he said.

“Ninety-five percent of what we do is not going to fires,” he said. “It’s interacting with people on a personal level, you’re going into a medical emergency, and I think with some of the calls that we go to, sometimes women are better equipped to deal with them.”

Six of Mt. Lebanon’s firefighters are women.

“I have two daughters,” he said. “I want my two daughters to believe that they can do anything that they want to do.”

Gone are days of old-time fire stations where everybody is in one big room with eight beds in it, but he acknowledged that changing that can be an issue when firehouses are as old as some of Pittsburgh’s.

Mr. Lamb, too, acknowledged in the audit that renovating older firehouses can be time-consuming and, more importantly, expensive.

“Yet,” he wrote, “women have been firefighters for many years, and it is more than overdue that facilities are made to welcome all who wish to be firefighters.”

A female firefighter filed a lawsuit against the city in 1998, alleging sexual discrimination and a sexually hostile work environment due in part to the lack of separate facilities for women. The city settled the lawsuit in 2002.

“The city has been aware of this situation, not least of which as part of the 1998 civil rights lawsuit,” Mr. Lamb wrote, “and it is no longer acceptable to continue to delay this work.”

While most of the city’s firehouses are in need of some level of repairs and renovations, Mr. Lamb suggested that once those design plans are agreed upon, “serious consideration needs to be given to funding for renovation of all firehouses as well as adding female facilities.”

In his response, Chief Daryl Jones wrote that the project in question has started and stakeholders meet quarterly to “identify and address the issues.” The city’s Public Works department, he said, plans to “start implementing changes to help address the concerns as stations are being repaired or renovated.”

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