Women in Firefighting: The Positives and Negatives
Firefighting isn’t easy, getting recruited as a firefighter is even harder, and women in firefighting getting recruited is probably the hardest single day challenge a person can face.
You don’t believe me? Only 2% of firefighters in Australia are women. The statistics aren’t much better in the rest of the world either. The US is similar to Australia at 2%. The best country’s stats I could find were in the UK, where 4% of firefighters are women. The numbers aren’t high anywhere in the world, and just getting recruited is only one example of the challenges women in firefighting have to face.
It’s a Challenge
We touched on some of the problems women face last week. Men used to working with only other men start to behave different. As they get used to that, changing back is a painful process. A woman entering the “Boys Only” club experiences sexual harassment, distrust and skepticism about their abilities to perform. It’s only natural, but it’s hard for many women to handle. A woman entering the firehouse threatens their way of life, and that’s the reason for the hostile attitudes.
Until recently, women in firefighting were unheard of. Even today, firehouses are built with only one sex in mind. Sleeping and bathing arrangements aren’t separated. Equipment is bulky and ill-fitting for women. Also there’s grooming and clothing rules that are designed for men only.
Lastly, both men and women have to experience the lows in the business. Telling someone of a loss, or witnessing all of a person’s worldly possessions literally go up in smoke can be hard. Women tend to take things like that harder, or take longer before they get used to it. This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks – besides the living arrangements and the people that are working with them.
All this combined looks bleak for women. It takes a strong woman to make it into the firehouse. It takes an even stronger woman to stay there. So why do it?
Women in Firefighting has its Positives
Women who survive the transition period have spoken up about the benefits. The common theme is they feel as though their life has renewed meaning. They have a heightened sense of community, both within the firehouse and the community they serve.
They love the exciting career. Who doesn’t! Even at a very young age we realize that the trucks, the sirens, the flashing lights are exhilarating. Saving a life and the heartfelt thanks afterwards changes a person for the better. This type of positive reinforcement is what some women have described as the well of positivity from which they draw on when the going gets tough.
One thing many women in firefighting are quick to point out is that, after an awkward introductory period, the majority of their experiences with the team they work with are positive. The team begins to accept them after they work side by side though life-and-death decisions. They become trusted. They bond. They even begin to accept women in leadership roles. Every team with a woman on it eventually accepts them.
If it takes placing a woman on every firefighting team to change the firefighting world, then so be it. I will certainly help the tides change.
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