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Why are so few firefighters women?

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Mount Vernon Fire Department gear

Protective equipment worn by firefighters seen inside a Mount Vernon fire truck. 

MOUNT VERNON  Firefighting is a male-dominated industry.

The Mount Vernon Fire Department hired its first female firefighter this month, Kayla Corbin, and city leaders see more on the horizon.

As Mount Vernon Fire Department prepares to expand fire and EMS services to College Township, it is hiring additional part-time firefighters, which will likely include several women. 

“I’ve already interviewed three females for our part-time staff,” fire chief Chad Christopher said.

In the coming weeks, Christopher expects more female firefighters among the department's part-time staff, he said.

Other fire departments across the U.S., both near and far, also lag in their employment of women. 

Women have been volunteer/unpaid firefighters for almost 200 years, but the first women became career firefighters within the past few decades after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate against applicants based on sex, race, religion, or nationality.

Since the explicit exclusion of women from fire departments has been outlawed, departments have continued to face lawsuits for discriminatory hiring practices, physical ability testing procedures, ill-fitting gear and more.  

The National Fire Protection Association’s latest research from 2018 shows 8% of the total 1,115,000 career and volunteer firefighters were female. 

The percentage of female career firefighters was lower — at 4% out of 370,000 total career firefighters — and higher for volunteer female firefighters — at 11% out of 745,000 volunteer firefighters.

What are other areas trying to increase female firefighters among their ranks?

Ohio fire departments have adjusted operations in an attempt to change gender employment ratios. 

Some departments have added targeted recruitment efforts, including Columbus Division of Fire which hosted an all-female recruitment event in 2018 to increase the number of women in its department. 

However following these efforts, in 2019 the Columbus Division of Fire came under scrutiny for sexual harassment against female firefighters by men in its leadership ranks, showing gender disparities within the department are about more than just numbers. 

Others have addressed the physical barriers of entry that may dissuade women from joining or remaining in departments.

The city of Cleveland passed legislation to remodel fire stations to make them more inclusive for women, including providing separate sleeping areas, bathrooms and showers for female firefighters.

Many fire departments offer more than solely fire services, including Mount Vernon Fire Department which offers both fire and emergency medical services.

Given the multifaceted roles of many firefighters, some researchers suggest reframing the firefighter prototype to include more than brute strength (i.e. the notion that firefighters carry people out of burning buildings and enter homes to help care for injured and sick people). 

A department in Kettering, a suburb of Dayton, reassessed its physical requirements accordingly.

It de-emphasized qualifying agility tests where strength was a significant factor and began using job fairs and camps instructed by female members to recruit more women. Kettering also posts firefighter employment opportunities to job boards such as womeninfire.org.

Among many areas of the country that have few to no female firefighters, a fire department in the rural community of Frametown, West Virginia, is an exception. 

Women account for 55% of the department's firefighters.

The department has multiple generations of women in the same families within the department, something often the case with men in fire departments.

Frametown's department members also emphasize a comprehensive view of emergency response skills, specifically the importance of compassion to manage incidents. Women hold leadership positions, and mentoring relationships are used to create an environment of growth and development among all members, regardless of gender.

Mount Vernon Fire Department is not alone in its firefighter gender gap. As departments across the country work to close such gaps, they are focusing on various aspects, some beyond the numbers — to work culture, mentorship and representation.

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Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.

Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.