23 July 2012

A “girl firefighter”?

As I was leaving the corner store yesterday, I passed a young couple standing by the County Fire recruitment poster. The poster shows a group of firefighters in full bunker gear, both men and women.

Just as I walked past, the young lady said to her companion, “Can you imagine if your house was on fire and a girl firefighter showed up?”

I couldn’t help myself. I turned and said, “… and what would be wrong with that?”

She was caught off guard, a bit flustered … “oh, umm, well, nothing…”

“Right,”I said. “They’re as strong as the men are.”

This person has clearly never met some of the fine women on our local fire department, and she should. If she knew these women she’d never doubt that her life and property were in good hands.

One of our neighbours is a Fire Captain, and she most certainly knows her way around the equipment. She can run a hose or work the pump or do overhaul the same as any of the men. There are two sisters who joined the department fairly recently, and these young women scored the best marks the county has ever seen on one of the more challenging exams. These women know what they are doing, all of them. They’re held to the same standards the men are.

Now, it is true that on a volunteer fire department, not everyone is in prime physical shape. When this isn’t what you do for a living, it’s not practical to require everyone to put the time and energy into fitness that the full time firefighters do – for them, maintaining top condition is part of their job description, and many departments schedule workouts as part of a firefighter’s regular daily duties. Volunteer fire is a bit different, it has to be. There’s a lot of jobs that need doing: someone has to run the pump (which requires knowledge and skill, but not physical strength). Someone has to refill air tanks and hand out water bottles and man the radio. Someone has to drive. Someone has to hold the hose (and that *does* require strength as well as skill, but you can have a backup person helping to support the weight and ideally you switch out frequently so your arms don’t get too tired).

Volunteer fire departments need people who are willing to show up, willing to learn, and who know their limits and will work within them. They need people who will leave their dinner table to direct traffic around an accident so EMS can get in, people who will drive the tanker back and forth from the lake to the fire, hauling water for the crew who are dousing flames, people willing to aim a fire hose at a burning house or tractor or field of grass. They need people who are willing to go to some courses, people who will show up once a week for training, people who will carry a pager and do what they can to help whenever they are able.

Volunteer fire departments need people who recognize their limits and stay behind them: if you exceed your limits and put yourself at risk, you’ve just complicated things for your entire crew, and nobody wants that. There’s plenty of jobs that need to be done, find the one that suits your skills and abilities and do that.

But don’t assume that because you don’t have the physique of a body builder - or because you are a woman – that there’s nothing you can offer. Chances are really good your local fire department could use more help – the vast majority of departments are extremely low on resources.

Think about it.

And if you see a girl firefighter, please show her the same respect you’d show the rest of her crew. She might just be the one who saves your life some day.


  1. Anonymous12:27 pm

    We were well acquainted with the fire department in our last job and certainly can confirm the girls on that team were equal partners in their mission. All firefighters and EMS have my greatest respect!

  2. Some women have as much strength (or more) than some men. But the truth is that men are generally a bit stronger.

    Fortunately, physical strength is not the only thing needed on a fire, as you pointed out so well. Our department has a couple of women on it; it's strange at first for some of the men.

    But they are happy for "all hands" when they've got a working fire, or an emergency situation that requires a woman's gifts.

  3. Darn, I hate it when I try so hard, and still have grammatical errors. =(

  4. It's absolutely true that most men are stronger than most women. On city departments, though, everyone has to pass the same physical tests to get in. On the volunteer department, it seems to me that the gender differences in strength and endurance are far less noticeable than those attributable to age and full time occupation ... a fifty year old man with a desk job usually can't keep up with the twenty year old woman who trains draft horses! Our men aren't all in tip top shape - nor are our women. But they're all strong enough to do the job that they are tasked with ... which will be a job that takes into account the skills (and limitations) each person has. I was just shocked to hear this young woman saying, essentially, that she didn't think the girls could hack it, that they couldn't contribute anything of value on a fire scene. I just couldn't let that idea go unchallenged.

    I know that we generally envision firefighters as young, fit, muscled men - and there's a need for muscles, to be sure. But we need brains and empathy and willingness to show up and do what needs doing even more, and there's a job for everyone in reasonably good health who is willing to learn the necessary skills and commit themselves to the team.

    I love our firefighters. Especially the one I happen to be married to. :)

  5. Anonymous12:52 pm

    I love what you wrote about Volunteer Firefighters as it is so true. I too am married to one and it never ceases to amaze me at their dedication when they are called into action ... or even when it's just a training night. And yes, our department, the Chipman Fire Department, has both male and female members!


  6. HERE, HERE!! Well said, Lona, and thanks for having the courage to speak up to that young woman in the store. The same attitudes sometimes exist for our Coast Guard Auxiliary folks here and the Coastal Search and Rescue -- thank God for both the men AND women who dedicate themselves to all of these jobs, volunteer or paid.

  7. Colette, I think that those of us on the 'home support front' have such a different view of the work of volunteer fire - we *know* how often they leave the supper table (my husband had a fire call *every time my parents came over for a special occasion* for about two years running). They deserve a ton of respect - even if they are "just" volunteer firefighters ... they still put on SCBA and walk towards the flames!

    Skipper, the courage to speak up has never been something I lack - discretion, yes, courage, no! :) It would never have occurred to me that people would think women didn't belong on the Coast Guard or S&R ... maybe I took all those lessons about gender equality in elementary school more seriously than most ... or maybe they're not teaching that so much now - it *was* the 70s, and Free to Be You and Me was a big deal then. Now almost every girl is a princess and almost every boy is a tough guy. Girls can be tough too, and guys can be gentle. You'd think people would have this figured out by now, eh?

  8. Good for you for speaking up to the woman who made the comment, and forcing to actually THINK about what she said :o)

  9. Thanks so much for this post. As a nearly 20 year paramedic and former full time (female) firefighter of 10 years, it pains me to no end to continue to hear people - who should know better - continue to stereotype women as being not as capable as men in these jobs. I know from reading histories of the fire service that women were essential to fire crews especially in areas without formal fire companies. I think they would be very unhappy to hear some of the comments you and I have, especially today.

    Thanks to your husband, for being willing to carry the pager! May he stay safe.

  10. Cathy, I was just stunned to hear that kind of thing from someone so young (and female, to boot!) that I couldn't have kept quiet even if I wanted to! :)

    Susancoyotesfan - thanks for your service to your community! I actually submitted a slightly tweaked version of this post to our local newspaper (which is generally very short of content and happy to print just about anything submitted) so I'm hopeful that the message will get out to our local area in another medium as well. I'll post an update if it gets published! :)


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