As a young girl I never once thought about not being able to pursue any specific career choices, at least not due to being a woman. Fortunately, I grew up in a home where the narrative just didn’t exist. As the oldest of four I was encouraged to be a leader and a caretaker from a very young age. It really wasn’t until I was in the fire service before I understood that some people hold different perspectives. What I truly wish I had known about early in my career path is the very organization I now get to serve with. Women in Fire is a unique, positive, inclusive organization which I truly cherish.
Established over 30 years ago, the focus has continued to be on advocacy and inclusion resources. While these focus on the women of the US Fire service, there is a benefit to the entire industry, and in turn the communities we serve. With the percentage of women in the US Fire service at 7.3% there is clearly more work to be done. This number should cause department leadership to stop and reflect on their own membership and whether it reflects those being served. Many departments reach out to Women in Fire with requests for help in recruitment and retention. There are a few easy, low-cost ways to address both.
Marketing for members has become vastly different in the fire service, even in the 20 years that I’ve served. While the ‘word of mouth’ approach does still take place, social media and other web-based platforms have given way to quick advertising. As a department, how does your social media reflect on your members? If I were to look at your website, would I find positive feedback about how you serve the community? Will I be able to find other people within the pictures of department members that I may be able to connect or identify with? These are a few considerations to make when reviewing the perception that potential applicants may have with your organization.
There are a few ways to go above the marketing piece and provide an interaction opportunity for potential members. Volunteer organizations may benefit from a hands-on civilian day. An opportunity to provide the public time to perform a few skill stations on the fire ground may inspire people who hadn’t considered joining the fire service and may instil confidence in those who were unsure of their abilities. Young women’s camps can provide the same opportunities and inspire youth. A high school track focused on the fire service is another great option for introducing the fire service to young adults who may be making decisions about a career path. The importance in any of these opportunities is creating a positive learning atmosphere. At the Women in Fire conference there are two days of hands-on training sessions. These classes are taught by some of the best women and men in the fire service, who encourage students to persevere and improve on fire-ground skills. Trainers who understand the importance of allowing failures without shame and then pushing for success can help to mould great firefighters.
Culture plays a heavy role in retention of any fire department. The very tone of the organization spans from leadership to the newest member. If the tone of the organization is negative or unwelcoming to new members, there will be an impact on both recruitment and retention. There must be accountability for these behaviours. There are still stories of women being harassed and bullied within their fire department. Even the act of exclusion can impact someone’s desire to belong to an organization. It’s crucial to ensure that all members are treated with respect, especially by each other.
Many organizations still lack a policy that addresses pregnancy and return to work. I would encourage you to be proactive. As a leader, review whether you have a policy in place and if so, are any updates necessary. It can already be a nerve-wracking situation to be pregnant as a firefighter. Save the frustration and need to be reactive with policies by getting these in place as soon as possible. There are some great resources being developed in a current grant project with Women in Fire, the Center for Fire, Rescue, & EMS Health Research, and the National Volunteer Fire Council, which are specific to reproductive health. The goal is to provide women and their physicians with information about how the fire service may impact their pregnancy. We have worked with organizations that hold solid policies. I would encourage any organization looking for other examples to reach out to Women in Fire. Review local state regulations which could also impact the direction of such policies, as well.
We should all strive to make the fire service better as a whole. While change doesn’t occur overnight, reflection should shine a light on some areas that could be impacted. Engage your members in a positive way, encourage inclusive mindsets and atmosphere. Informal leaders can make these changes as well. Start small, be intentional, and look for ways to make it better than it was when you joined.