Is This a Problem?

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There are many departments across the country with successful and capable women in all ranks of the fire service. (Photo by Kim Fitzsimmons.)

Recruiting firefighters: Is this a problem? Of course not, if you want a department that is all male. But the recruiting of female firefighters is becoming a problem, as veteran women firefighters retire without the replacement of newer female recruits. The data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reveals that the number of career female firefighters is rapidly decreasing to less than four percent.

Today, many fire departments across the country are working to have their public servants be a reflection of the communities that they serve. Why? Because it improves the relationship between the public they serve and the business of firefighting. It is important to have diversity in the fire service.

So, why is it so difficult to attract women into the profession of firefighting? All too often there is an overshadowing question: “Should or can women be firefighters?” If you are still asking that question, then you will never be able to recruit women into your department. There are many departments across the country with successful and capable women in all ranks of the fire service. So what more needs to happen so that more women will want to choose the fire service as a viable profession?

Diversity vs. Inclusion

Most importantly, we have to recognize that diversity does not grow inclusion but instead that inclusion attracts diversity. What exactly does that mean? It is a known fact that when people feel like they are a part of a team, whether you call it a brotherhood or a sisterhood, they tend to stick around. This fellowship and camaraderie create retention within the group and an underlying desire for others to want to belong to the group.

It is like when you eat at a great new restaurant; you tell people about it, and everyone wants to eat there. Conversely, if the restaurant has bad food and service, what happens? It is talked about and spreads over social media, and not only do you not return but neither will others. The fire service is no different. If the environment/department is great and great for women—the word will spread.

Four Tips

Here are some tips for ways to help women want to be a part of the fire service.

Tip #1: Have an inclusive environment and use your own women as recruiters.

Who is doing your recruiting? Oftentimes the recruitment effort is performed by someone from administration who looks and acts like your dad. This person may not relate to the doubts about the profession that the youthful target female may be feeling. Does the recruiter have the same enthusiasm for having a diverse workforce? If your target is women, consider using other women firefighters for your recruitment team. Happy and content employees will reflect their excitement for the workforce.

Tip #2: Recruit in the right places and sell the benefits.

Where are you recruiting? Firefighting is a physically demanding job. A great place to recruit is the athletic departments of your local colleges; female athletes are great candidates to target for this line of work. Another place to seek women is the local athletic center, boot camp, and gym. Consider a job fair/fitness day.

You won’t have to think about lowering standards (nor do I support this thought) if you are looking in the right places. These potential recruits need to know about the great benefits, opportunities for promotion, and flexibility that a career in the fire service offers. Recruiters should focus on these points and not dwell on the difficulties of fitness that can detract from many male and female candidates.

Tip #3: CPAT works.

Now you have the applicants, what’s next? Are you using a process that is impartial? Comprehensive Physical Agilities Test (CPAT) is the recognized standard for the hiring of firefighters across the country. Many successful departments provide the applicants practice sessions for the agility tests. This gives the candidate an idea of what is expected and how to prepare for it. It is useful to provide mentors who can answer the questions and concerns the applicant will have. It should be someone who has done the CPAT and can share tips and techniques for success, especially for applicants who may be of a smaller stature.

If your department does not use CPAT for your entrance process then it is important to have a testing method that is fair and equitable. You should consider having the process validated both in scoring and function by current employees of all ages and sizes, with appropriately sized equipment during the practical process. Women and men come in all shapes and sizes, so options for equipment such as weighted vests and gloves should be available and should fit. You do not want to put the candidate at a disadvantage.

Tip #4: Be proactive not reactive.

Now that you have recruited women, what else should you plan for? Many concerns that arise at the station level include facilities, sleeping quarters, and minimum dress. I am not suggesting you immediately hire a contractor to remodel your station to accommodate the “new girl” but instead look at what you can do to ease the transition.

When I started in the fire department, many years ago, women used the public bathroom. The public bathroom was used by anyone and everyone. I was okay with it because that was how we did things. But thinking back, why did “the public” have to only use the bathroom assigned to me, the woman? It should have been that when the public entered the building, they use the bathroom specific to their gender. It wasn’t very inclusive. A proactive policy that outlines gender specific bathrooms and practices for your station operations will avoid any confusion or argument that may surface.

There are many options for privacy in a bunkroom that will benefit both genders. One solution is a divider or curtain. There have been successful lawsuits from women firefighters who were told to use a closet or storage room as a changing room. Take a lesson from history: This is not an option.

An important policy to adopt before it becomes an issue is to include in your station operations a policy that addresses appropriate sleepwear. The last thing you want is to have someone sleeping in their “birthday suit” to make a point (believe me, someone will do this). Be proactive with your policies. A department that believes in diversity and inclusion will take into consideration these gender differences to include separate facilities when building or remodeling future stations.

Family Leave

Your department has hired a fantastic female firefighter. What plans do you have for her if she becomes pregnant? The leadership should address this question before it happens. The Family Medical Leave Act provides federal mandates for use of leave for the birth of a baby, but that may not be enough.

There are some women firefighters who work on the line longer than they would like because they can’t afford to go without pay. There is no way for us to speculate how long a woman firefighter can continue to safely work without adversely affecting her unborn child, and call volume, assignment, and job descriptions are variables. Obstetricians should have access to the job descriptions of a firefighter, and the NFPA suggests a discussion with an occupational health representative and with the future mother about the risks to the unborn fetus. Regardless, a well-written restricted duty policy with direction from the employee’s physician on how long she can perform regular duties gives the leadership reasonable options. The policies should be consistent with other non-line-of duty policies.

Another proactive consideration should be policies to accommodate the nursing mother once she has returned to work. A mother’s rights are clearly stated in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which require the employer provide reasonable time for a nursing mother to pump breast milk for up to one year after the child’s birth. There should be discussion and policies included for the storage of milk, the cleaning of breastfeeding equipment, and the location of a lactation area.

A department that wants to be diverse should look at the current policies and procedures and rework the ones that will accommodate a diverse organization. It is important to have a good pregnancy and parenting policy in place, and it is a fantastic recruitment tool, which will make your department attractive.

Consider the Possibilities

The fire service is not just a man’s world. My perspective comes from the past 23 years of working in a fire department that is a leader in hiring and maintaining an inclusive workforce. I am proud to say that 20 percent of our nearly 1,000 career members are women. That’s right, my department has 200 women firefighters, and the administration has figured out what works.

In 2015, more women are working and co-parenting to raise a family. Women are successful at balancing family life with a strong work ethic. The stereotype of women staying at home and raising babies is gone. The stereotype of women as weak is gone.

There are many solid women who know nothing of a career as a firefighter, and they are waiting to hear from your department.

Pennwell