Female firefighter: 'We're assumed incompetent'

Researchers studied the experiences of 30 female firefighters, and a majority of the women said they faced a double standard


By Robert McCoppin, Angie Leventis Lourgos and Alicia Fabbre
Chicago Tribune

JOLIET, Ill. — The Oval Office notwithstanding, there are very few workplaces left in the United States where women have not gained entry.

But in one of the last places in the workforce where a virtual male monopoly endures — fire stations — it’s still possible in 2018 for departments to hire their first female firefighters.

Huntley Fire Protection District firefighter/paramedic Kelly Gitzke trains with fellow fire fighters at the Huntley Fire Protection District Annex. (Photo/Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Huntley Fire Protection District firefighter/paramedic Kelly Gitzke trains with fellow fire fighters at the Huntley Fire Protection District Annex. (Photo/Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Such is the case in Joliet, which announced this month it took on its first female recruit in its 165-year history. Though many departments started hiring women decades ago, some still have only one woman firefighter and some have none.

Nationwide, only about 4 percent of firefighters are women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, even as that figure has risen to about 14 percent in police work and the military. Even traditionally male occupations like farming and construction management have higher percentages of women than firefighting.

“The numbers are abysmal,” said Cheryl Horvath, a former firefighter in downstate Urbana and past president of the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services. “I don’t know that we’ve been able to gain the traction we need to get to that critical mass point.”

Attitudes toward women in the profession have generally improved, Horvath said, but some still face horror stories.

In Fairfax County, Va., firefighter Nicole Mittendorff took her life in 2016 after being harassed about her work online. The department appointed a woman to address gender problems, but she resigned this year, according to local reports, saying no one was heeding her suggestions.

This year, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the city of Houston over claims that two female firefighters were victims of sexual harassment that included male co-workers urinating in their dormitory, writing sexist messages on the walls and deactivating speakers so the women couldn’t respond to emergency calls.

Closer to home, the Chicago Fire Department has been the subject of several lawsuits in recent decades alleging race and sex discrimination in its hiring practices. For years, the department required firefighters and paramedics to pass physical tests that were challenged in court as discriminatory against women, before the city agreed to replace the tests.

Marni Willenson, an attorney who sued to challenge the physical test for firefighters, said the litigation helped get 44 more women onto a force that she estimated has fewer than 200 female firefighters out of some 5,000 overall.

“That’s a lot, given where we started,” she said. “So we’re proud of that and they’re doing great.”

Now, like many departments, the city uses the Candidate Physical Ability Test meant to better simulate the requirements of the job, such as climbing stairs, raising ladders, dragging hoses, carrying equipment, swinging axes and conducting searches.

Chicago gets about 30,000 applicants whenever it periodically opens up the hiring process for firefighters, but the vast majority are men, Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said. While he said Chicago hires more women firefighters than some other big cities like New York or Los Angeles, “we need to do better.”

As for promotions, Langford said the head of the paramedics is a woman, one of five district chiefs is a woman, and a number of women are deputy district chiefs and battalion chiefs.

UPDATING CENTURY-OLD FIRE STATIONS

He acknowledged that the department still has a long way to go to retrofit its station houses, some of which are 100 years old, to accommodate women. To that end, the city is working on plans to update stations with partitions in sleeping quarters, and separate men’s and women’s bathroom and shower facilities. Firefighters are now expected to maintain modesty in the clothes they sleep in.

“All of it’s being addressed because the issues are genuine,” Langford said.

Lauren Howard, the first female firefighter at the Chicago Fire Department as well as the first woman to become a captain, said it’s important for women to see potential role models in the fire service. She said she hopes the hiring in Joliet encourages more female applicants.

“(If) people see she can do it, maybe more will try,” she said. “I want to see women seize more empowerment. We don’t want to wait for it to be given to us.”

When Howard was hired in 1980, she recalled some had expressed concern about men and women sharing sleeping quarters and facilities at firehouses.

“I found no place safer than to sleep in the bunk room with 20 firefighters,” she said, “the safest places on Earth.”

She remembers one co-worker told her his wife wouldn’t like the situation.

“Then you’ll have to find yourself a new job,” she said she replied. “Because I’m here to stay.”

While there were already female paramedics on the job, Howard was the sole female firefighter in the department for years until 1986, when one firefighter training class included 20 women, two of whom were her nieces.

“The challenge was rewarding,” she said. “When you’re on your way to a fire, you don’t have time to be afraid. You just trust your crew.”

Researchers from Drexel University in Philadelphia studied the experiences of 30 female firefighters and published their findings in September in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health.

A majority of the women said they faced a double standard, especially for any who were the first female to join a particular department.

“We’re assumed incompetent basically, inferior and incompetent,” said one female firefighter with 25 years on the job.

Several participants also described cases of discrimination or harassment; some said they felt a responsibility to other female firefighters to stay on the job.

But the research also found that male firefighters often viewed their female colleagues as more skilled at de-escalating tense situations, calming emergency medical patients and assessing on-the-job risks, said Jennifer Taylor, director of the Center for Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends at the university’s Dornsife School of Public Health.

“Some fire departments do a great job. … They value those women and they promote them up,” she said. “Anybody who signs up for the job of firefighter or paramedic is a hero in my book, regardless of gender. Nobody cares the gender of the firefighter that comes to your house when it’s on fire.”

Advocates’ proposals for improving participation by women included recruiting from sports and fitness, medical fields and college campuses. Other suggestions include zero tolerance for harassment and accountability for managers to increase hiring.

‘MENTALLY, I MIGHT BE THE STRONGER PERSON’

Despite ongoing issues, several female firefighters interviewed in the suburbs said they generally felt accepted by their male colleagues.

“Physically, the guys are stronger, but mentally, in other situations, I might be the stronger person,” said Huntley firefighter-paramedic Kelly Gitzke, who is also a nurse. “So many of our calls are for emergency medical services. I might have better experience because of my other job as a nurse. They might pull me in (to respond).”

Carissa Smith, Joliet’s first female fire department hire and among eight recent new recruits, also has a medical background, having been a U.S. Army medic. Earlier this month, she became the first woman to sign “The Book,” a log of new recruits the department has kept since 1905.

Smith, 29, declined to be interviewed, according to Chief Joe Formhals, who said she wanted to focus on her training and didn’t want to be singled out for recognition.

He noted the city has had female candidates on the fire department’s eligibility list in the past but none ever joined.

Until 2008, the city also had a requirement that firefighter applicants had to live in the city at the time they applied, which may have further limited the pool of potential applicants.

When recruiting candidates for a new list, Formhals said the department’s outreach efforts were more extensive this time and included job fairs, social media posts, some college visits and even some recruitment efforts at area fitness centers. He noted the department received more than 650 applications.

“There definitely has been a priority to open up the hiring process for city jobs,” Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said. “The fire department and recruitment department have worked really hard to make sure people know that it’s an open process.”

The new eligibility list includes a number of females and minorities. Smith was ranked third on the list and another female was right behind her who would have been hired had she not withdrawn her name, the chief said.

He is hopeful that having a diverse fire department will help encourage others to join.

“It just shows that the door is open,” he said. “It’s a great career and it shouldn’t just be a career for men … it’s for anyone interested in helping the community.”

‘I ALWAYS HAD TO PROVE EVERYTHING’

Hiring women is one thing; retaining them and creating fair work environments is another. When someone does pull a rude prank or make an offensive comment, firefighters said, it’s important to address it right away.

“I always had to prove I could do everything,” said Alicia McCoy, the acting fire chief at Abbott Laboratories who has also served with Winthrop Harbor Fire Department. As with many in the business, her father was a firefighter. “Everybody gets a little harassment hazing kind of stuff, but I don’t think I got it any worse than the guys.”

In her early days on the job, people would see her hop off a fire engine at the scene of an emergency and doubt she was really a firefighter. That attitude has largely gone away, she said, but other struggles remain. There’s an ongoing problem with having good maternity programs to retain women when they have children.

But in general, she said, there’s much more acceptance now.

“I’ve seen a lot of growth,” said McCoy, who is president of Fire Service Women of Illinois. “Sometimes you think this is never changing; attitudes are the same. Maybe there’s pockets throughout the country like that, but in my experience, there’s been a lot of change.”

Curt Varone has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service, having retired as a deputy assistant chief in Providence, R.I. He said he consults for fire departments and writes a blog on fire law.

Varone said some male firefighters still gripe that departments have lowered their physical standards to accommodate women. And while he said such complaints are unfair, he said physical abilities can vary between men and women, and departments need to figure out ways to address that, such as by using more lightweight equipment, though that can be costly.

But culture barriers can be as big as financial ones.

“How do you change that frat house culture? That’s what we’re wrestling with. We’ve been fiddling around with this for 40 years and we’re continuing to have the same problems,” Varone said. “We need to look at what is leading to the lack of women in the fire service. … Hearts and minds have not changed on this issue. (That’s) the only way we’re going to see progress.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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