Equal Treatment in the Fire Service?

“Facts,” John Adams famously declared, “are stubborn things. And whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The notion of equality in the fire service likewise demands an examination of facts. What our wishes and preconceived notions tell us mean little. And when it comes to women joining the fire service through equal treatment and standards, the facts are dismal.

Firefighters should be able to show up to work regardless of gender or ethnicity without the crew whispering that they were only hired to meet a quota. [Photo courtesy of Stephanie Pribble, firefighter/paramedic, Celburn (TX) Fire Department.]

Firefighters should be able to show up to work regardless of gender or ethnicity without the crew whispering that they were only hired to meet a quota. [Photo courtesy of Stephanie Pribble, firefighter/paramedic, Celburn (TX) Fire Department.]

Gender Treatment

As a child and, later, as a young adult, the feeling of being treated equally was, for me, ever present, existing only in my mind’s eye, and something taken for granted. The crimes of our nation’s past—slavery, Jim Crow, lack of women’s suffrage, and others—only existed for me in history books. I had never been touched personally by these injustices, or so I thought.

But, as I’ve grown older and stepped out of my bubble, of the societal norm I felt so comfortable in, and as I’ve made the fire service my career, I’ve become more sensitive to history and the necessity of not repeating it. Gender stereotypes are pervasive in the fire service, and recruitment of women to the service is hampered in part because of the unequal treatment. I’ve experienced this firsthand before I even joined; no sooner had I declared my intentions to become a firefighter then the backlash began, and my head was still spinning from the insults before the signatures that memorialized my enrollment into the fire academy had dried. What I’ve learned, since then, is that equality is in the eye of the beholder.

Understanding backgrounds and history is the most important thing we can do to understand the facts of inequality. If I want to know a solution, I’d be wise to understand how the problem came to be.

Shaped By the Past

In Texas, we teach our girls how to be tough, to ride horses, shoot skeet, and even spit watermelon seeds. But we balance it with proper manners, Sunday brunches, and kitchen aprons. There’s always been a fine line between the two. Sway too far one way, and you’re labeled a tomboy or troublemaker; too far the other, and you’re a pushover and weak. My spiritual journey will forever be shaped by my proximity to being raised in the “Bible Belt.” We had churches on every major downtown street that guided our children to being better people. With all its good intentions, I also picked up something else. I grew up believing that being a homemaker was the holy path in life for a woman. That being “over a man in leadership” wasn’t biblical and shouldn’t be sought out. And the biggest one that’s shaped my interpersonal relationships: Men and women can’t have emotionally meaningful connections without impropriety.

With all my Texas history in mind, and a fully charged defiant streak, I decided to buck the system and become a firefighter. I was completely aware that doing this would take me away from my kids and husband every third day. I also knew that with the chance of promotions, I’d one day be in a leadership role and “over a man.” And the biggest yet, I knew the intense emotional scenes and firehouse life would build a bond between me and my brothers. I knew this. I knew what I was getting into. But even with all my mental preparations, I quickly realized I knew nothing.

Not Enough?

As I was carrying around my paramedic textbook one day, a man stopped me on the street. He asked what my plans in life were, while pointing at the book. With my back straight and pride in my eyes, I told him I was working to become a firefighter. His whole posture changed and, in an instant, I was being told I was too small and too girly and would never be able to drag a victim by myself down a ladder from a four-story building. And he was right—well, kind of! But at the time, I didn’t know how the fire service worked. How we go in teams of two and how rapid intervention teams require even more. I didn’t know techniques that would get someone on a ladder, let alone down it! I knew nothing, other than that I wanted to be a firefighter. But he didn’t know these things either! We were both hampered by our preconceived notions, not cognizant of the facts. But that moment, and the dozens more I encountered, drastically affected my confidence and, even more frighteningly, my self-worth. What I heard over and again was how being a woman and being a firefighter were completely incompatible. I was being labeled and boxed in based solely on being a woman, something out of my control.

But one fine day, I met a female firefighter. And she wasn’t large framed or “manly.” She even had a headband with glitter on it. Glitter! I was floored; my mouth may have dropped open in awe. I had come to believe that I couldn’t do this job, and standing in front of me was a woman doing exactly what I wanted. We talked, and I came to find out she had the same naysayers in her life, too. She found support and fought against the stereotype and was now a well-respected, efficient, competent firefighter. The thing that stuck out the most for me was the fact that I had been seriously considering walking away from a dream, simply because so many people told me I couldn’t do it. Out of 100 people, 10 were supportive. What should have been a clue that I was obviously looking for direction and reassurance from the wrong crowd was instead a wall boxing me in and leading me toward self-defeat.

It doesn’t matter our age; we need role models.

Bridging the Gap

Fact: About five percent of today’s fire service is made up of women. And there is only a slightly higher percentage of black, Asian, and other minorities. Research has been done to help us understand why recruiting and retaining women and other minorities has been difficult. Consistently, the answer lies mostly in the fact that recruitment for any minority is best received when the recruiter belongs to that minority. This makes sense, really, as each ethnicity, gender, and group has a story, a legacy, and events that make them who they are today. Having someone with similar experiences encourage you toward a career carries more weight.

Department heads nationwide are striving to bridge the gap between firehouse percentage of minorities and community percentage, recognizing that the fire service is better when it reflects the community it serves. If you’re population is predominantly Hispanic, it would serve your department to have more than one Hispanic person on your crew. The same can be said of every minority. But this is where it gets messy. As of today, most chiefs are interested in bridging this gap, but there remain tailboards up through captains who aren’t so enthusiastic. And when the rank and file aren’t behind these needed changes, making changes becomes far more difficult.

How a department views recruitment of minorities reflects the leader’s attitude.

The facts of leadership show that bridging this gap will never work if the chief is the only one who sees and understands the problem. Educating the whole team is paramount if there will ever be a culture change. Without the rank and file on board, the sole weight of educating and encouraging change falls on the heads of the minorities and adversely affects their careers. Firefighters should be able to show up to work regardless of gender or ethnicity without the crew whispering that they were only hired to meet a quota.

As a service, we can support each other as a whole and also acknowledge our differences. Having an international association of female firefighters does not discredit the great work of other international or state-level associations. They are two separate things, for two distinct purposes. Before a firefighter gets upset about a group like this, it is imperative that he reflect on the history of the service and his own history first. Many great men and women have fought for equality. Other notables have fought against it and been proven wrong by history time and time again. It would be wise to determine on which side you sit and why. Take a moment to hear a story from a minority’s perspective before passing judgment on an organization that minority subscribes to.

We learn more by listening than we ever will by talking. And remember, equality will always look present when you’re being treated equally. Let’s keep that in mind while pressing forward in this culture change.

Tracy Whitten is a firefighter/paramedic with the Denton (TX) Fire Department. She is the founder and current president of North Texas Women Firefighters, a nonprofit that recruits, educates, and equips women to be successful in the fire service. As a subscriber to the phrase “The more you read the less you know,” Whitten’s quest to understand human behavior and effective leadership practices has led her to an eclectic topic of studies. As a lover of psychology, she’s passionate about the link between mental health and organizational leadership.