Recently a family with small children visited my firehouse. The girl in the family was amazed to see two women in the station during her visit and was very surprised to learn that we were the firefighters on duty. She told us she didn’t even know that women could be firefighters. Unfortunately, this little girl’s reaction is not at all unusual. Today in the United States, women account for only about 7 percent of all firefighters. Most girls have never seen a woman who is a firefighter.
The first female firefighter on record dates back to 1818. Molly Williams worked for Benjamin Aymar, a New York City businessman and volunteer firefighter in Oceanus Engine Company No. 11. During the Blizzard of 1818, male firefighters were scarce because of an influenza outbreak When an emergency call came in, Molly ditched her apron and dress and took her place with the men on the dragropes. That night, Molly helped pull the pumper to the fire through deep snow.
Despite Molly’s firefighting skills and ambition, it took 159 years for women to be allowed to apply for jobs as New York City firefighters. But even though women could apply in 1977, it wasn’t until 1982 that the city hired its first paid female firefighter.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are 1.6 million firefighters in the U.S., but only 110,000 are women. New research by the National Volunteer Fire Council shows that women have as much interest in becoming a volunteer emergency responder as men. So why aren’t there more women fighting fires?
For many girls, becoming a volunteer firefighter may just seem impossible, something they have never even considered. It’s not because they would not want the job, or because they could not do it well. But with so few females in the fire service, it's more likely that young girls don’t even know that firefighting is an option for them.
An exception is the Frametown Volunteer Fire Department in Braxton County, West Virginia, where women make up almost two-thirds of the membership, and include Chief Angie Short. Understanding the story of the department with a majority female membership could be one of the crucial turning points for increasing volunteerism in the U. S. fire service. Frametown succeeded in closing the gender gap because of its welcoming and inclusive culture.
Recently, I had the chance to talk with Lisa Evans, a volunteer firefighter and EMT with the West Newbury and Groveland Fire Departments in Massachusetts. Twenty percent of Groveland's members are women, far exceeding the state average. Lisa spoke about the recruitment and retention of women in the fire service at the New England Small Town Fire Chiefs training seminar presented by the New England Volunteer Fire and EMS Coalition and hosted by the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League. The theme of Lisa’s presentation to the 51 current and future chiefs in attendance, including four women, was about diversity and inclusiveness.
According to Lisa, the best way for a department to be successful is to reach out to different cultural groups in the community. She maintains that the makeup of every organization should reflect that of the community. She said that diversity is a good goal to have, but if you want to maintain it, you need to be inclusive. Lisa also noted that membership diversity not only reflects the community but adds a new pool of potential recruits to the fire service.
Keep in mind there is no such thing as a typical female firefighter. As with the men, women firefighters come from all backgrounds, races, and ethnicities and have a broad range of valuable technical and interpersonal skills. What female firefighters do have in common with their male counterparts, however, is their dedication to their work and their commitment to serving their communities.
Your local fire departments encourage females to join. They want females to join. They need females to join. These fire departments need more role models and leaders with whom young women can identify. If a child can see women driving firetrucks, extinguishing fires, operating fire apparatus, and teaching fire safety in her community, she can see the profession as a real option for her.
This column was written by Jane Perkins, fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please e-mail her at email@example.com.