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Gender neutral or gender inclusive? What to consider in fire station design

Understanding the different models to facility design can help fire service leaders find the best solution for their department


Women have been career firefighters for decades, and departments with a commitment to gender inclusion have had plenty of time to consider and plan for necessary changes.

Photo/Arlington County, Virginia

Last fall, an urban fire department announced that it was modifying one of its fire stations to include gender-neutral facilities. In addition to creating separate sleeping spaces for firefighters, the renovation also transformed existing restroom and shower facilities into two unisex restrooms with individual shower facilities in each restroom.

This story brought up thoughts about the fact that sleeping quarters and restroom facilities are two distinct issues when it comes to gender inclusion.

When it comes to sleeping quarters, it’s fairly straightforward to provide equitable, gender-neutral areas – either everyone sleeps in the dorm or everyone gets a separate sleeping pod or room. When professional behavior and attire are the norm, either of these arrangements may be workable for a fire crew that includes both men and women.

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It gets trickier when you start talking about bathrooms. A truly gender-neutral bathroom is what most people have in their homes – a separate, private space used by only one person at a time. Some small fire stations have such facilities, especially if they were originally converted from private homes.

Such arrangements can work, but because typical bathrooms only accommodate one person, problems can arise from greater demand. If these are the only facilities available, all those using them must be considerate, just as you would when growing up in a large family. It’s not fair for one person to dominate the space with showering, dressing and personal care when others are desperate just to take care of basic bodily functions.

Perhaps the more typical way that restroom facilities are designed to be gender neutral is in line with the description above – two identical restrooms that include multiple showers, toilets, sinks and lockers. If men and women are working at that station, then men use one and women use the other. If only one sex is represented on the crew, they may use both.

This sounds good in theory but can still generate problems. If men are the vast majority of those assigned at that station, out of necessity, their lockers and personal gear will be located in both restroom facilities. When a woman shows up to work there, she may prevent one of her coworkers from accessing his usual space and personal locker. That is an inconvenience, and although not her fault, can lead to resentment against the woman.

Some departments see the concept of gender neutral as creating spaces with private showers and toilets, but shared locker, sink and dressing areas. Again, there are inherent problems with this approach.

First, unless toilets and showers are walled off with separate doors (as opposed to metal stalls or curtains), they will not be considered private and will only be used by one sex or the other at any given time. With men in the majority, they will have faster and more complete access to toilets and showers (since more than one man could be using facilities at the same time) while a woman would be forced to wait until all men are cleared out before she could use them.

The same is true for lockers and changing areas. Despite what you see on TV fire shows, it is not (nor should it be) common practice for men and women to have their lockers next to one another so that they are required to dress and undress in mixed-sex areas. The reality is that in larger so-called gender-neutral spaces, several men could be dressing, shaving or brushing teeth simultaneously, while a lone woman would not have access to any of the facilities during that time.

Some departments address this concern by locating lockers (and thus changing areas) in sleeping pods or rooms rather than in restrooms. This allows for privacy when dressing and takes some pressure off the restroom facilities but can create limitations on where people may be assigned to sleep when their lockers are located in a specific space.

Seek best practices and solutions

What is the answer to these challenges? It’s true that most older fire stations were designed for only male occupants, and station renovation is expensive and inconvenient. However, women have been career firefighters for decades, and departments with a commitment to gender inclusion have had plenty of time to consider and plan for necessary changes.

Departments that want to make positive changes in facilities can access several resources. Fire service leaders should seek out best practice and different models both regionally and nationally. There is not one single correct solution, but different approaches that fit crew size, shift schedule and other factors.

What fire departments cannot do is wait for members to complain or insist on changes in living facilities to meet their needs. Women are usually in a distinct minority or alone in any station situation, and the last thing a new woman on the crew wants to do is draw attention to herself on account of gender. She is likely to go-along-to-get-along for an extended period, allowing departments to delay changes that should have been made long ago.

Fire departments need to take the lead on providing safe and equitable living facilities for all members. Soliciting input from members during this process is always a positive approach, but the incentive for making change must come from the top down as a leadership imperative.

As with planting a tree, the best time to initiate station renovations to include both sexes was 30 years ago. The second-best time is today.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.