Trending Topics

Fire doesn’t discriminate, but gender plays a role in firefighter safety

Research shows that female firefighters face different risks than their male counterparts


Equip female firefighters with fitted gear and eliminate a culture of harassment to keep them safe


It’s no secret that firefighting is a dangerous profession with a high rate of injury – estimates from the National Fire Protection Association reveal there are close to 70,000 injuries annually. Researchers have taken steps to explore patterns and predictors of injury, but mostly among male firefighters only.

To explore this topic among women firefighters, our team designed a study with qualitative focus groups and interviews to identify attitudes and perception of injuries among females. Our findings were published in the International Journal of Fire Service Leadership and Management.

The sample consisted of 73 current female firefighters and fire service leaders from across the country. In general, women believed their pattern of injuries were similar to men in the fire service. As one participant stated, “Fire doesn’t discriminate. It will kill you either way, whether you’re male or female.”

While fire might not discriminate, there are certain risks that are different for women.

Fire culture is different for women firefighters

A common thought process among women firefighters was that they needed to work harder to “prove” themselves in a male-dominated field, which sometimes led to not asking for help when they needed it. Several women reported they had experienced injuries they pushed through or didn’t report because they didn’t want to appear weak, further exacerbating their pain.

There are clear physical differences between men and women, and to account for these differences, women reported using different body mechanics to complete tasks. While some women said they faced resistance from their departments in completing tasks in a different way, others reported that their departments were open to exploring alternative – and often safer – ways of carrying out tasks.

Women also indicated during the study that it was more difficult to build upper body strength, with many focusing on specific areas to build strength for on-the-job tasks. Quantitative research on women in the fire service has found that women tend to be more fit and active than their male counterparts.

An interesting side note was that many smaller-framed male firefighters also use different techniques to be safer, and several women discussed how their smaller-framed male colleagues would approach them and ask for tips or suggestions on alternative ways to lift, carry or operate equipment.

Ill-fitting gear can also be an issue that places women at risk. While many departments are now recognizing the need for gear that fits a variety of body frames and face sizes, some still provide “leftover gear,” or purchase gear in bulk that may not properly fit all crew members, putting people at risk for injury.

Unfortunately, some women reported that harassment is an issue that increases the risk for injury. One participant is quoted as saying, “They berate you and belittle you so much that you start doubting yourself, and when you doubt yourself, you worry. That’s when you’re more apt … to have an accident or get hurt. I’ve had firefighters tell me to my face that they were going to hurt me or kill me; they could get me alone in a house fire.”

While fire doesn’t discriminate, it is disturbing that some women are still facing discrimination from their departments and coworkers that puts them at risk.

Sara Jahnke, PhD, is the director and a senior scientist with the Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research at the National Development & Research Institutes - USA. With over a decade of research experience on firefighter health, Dr. Jahnke has been the principal investigator on 10 national studies as well as dozens of studies as a co-investigator. Her work has focused on a range of health concerns, including the health of female firefighters, behavioral health, risk of injury, cancer, cardiovascular risk factors, and substance use, with funding from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant R&D Program, the National Institutes of Health and other foundations. Jahnke has more than 100 publications in the peer-reviewed medical literature. Awards include the 2019 Endowed Lecture at the annual conference of the American College of Epidemiology; the 2018 President’s Award for Excellence in Fire Service Research as well as the Excellence in Research, Safety, Health & Survival Award, both from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC); and the 2016 John Granito Award for Excellence in Firefighter Research from the International Journal of Fire Service Leadership and Management. Connect with Jahnke on LinkedIn, Twitter or via email.