Women in the Fire Service: Carrying the Burden of Being Female

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Another day. Another headline about a woman in the fire service suing for justice.

In what is only one of the more recent cases to become public, a female member of the Las Vegas (Nev.) Fire and Rescue Department is suing after a fellow firefighter and ex-boyfriend shared explicit video of her with co-workers (Fire service brotherhood?).

The other day I saw a post on Facebook where a colleague and friend of mine was retiring from her position of as a

On Wednesday, September 26, 2018, an all-women staffed FDNY engine company served the City of New York for the first time in the department’s 153 year history.The crew – Lieutenant Tracy Lewis, Firefighter Martha Brekke, Firefighter Eniola Brown, Firefighter Vanessa Schoening, Firefighter Sarinya Srisakul, and Firefighter Regina Wilson – was detailed to Engine 503 on 51st Street and worked as part of ramped up efforts to protect the dignitaries of the United Nations General Assembly on its last day in session.–By United Women Firefighters

captain with a fire and EMS department after a 25-year career. I was somewhat taken aback at this news because she’d never made any mention of retirement during any recent communications.

So, being the inquisitive guy that I am, I asked her about her decision to retire and what prompted her to “go out” at this time. Here’s what she told me:

First, I have to say I loved my job! I found it to be twenty-five years of serving people with honor. I enjoyed being a firefighter even though I was smaller than many of my coworkers. Being a woman in the fire service was always front and center.

I was always asked questions about whether I could physically do my job. I had several formulated answers for that question: “Yes” or “‘It takes more than one person to drag a firefighter out of a building, unless of course the someone needing to be dragged out is me.”

Anyway, it was always a topic of discussion. About a year ago I was asked that question by an older woman. I was so tired of answering that question that I told her, “My job has more to do with leading or being a social worker than anything else. Actually, I get pushed to the front of the line to handle many situations because I am a woman.”

I would add my coworkers were mostly always supportive of me. Many were protective of me. Some were waiting for me fail, and others masked their doubts well. The rest of the world, outside of the department, always had questions though. That was what got old.

I never doubted myself intellectually. But as I got older, I suffered with the very subtle anxiety of the possibility that I may fail at my job physically. It never happened, but I always worried that I might fail at our department’s constant evaluations. I never worried, ever, about my skills at a call. But I got tired of always being watched.

When I drove away from work on my last day, I measured my current state. I wondered if I would be sentimental. So far, no.

I immediately felt a sense of relief that after twenty-five years I would not have to be questioned about my abilities anymore. I don’t have to worry anymore about what people think or believe about my competence anymore. I don’t have to prove anything anymore to anyone.

During my career I had no idea I was feeling this sense of stress until it was gone. So, I have mixed feelings, but I am proud to be the first woman to retire from my fire and EMS department, healthy and relatively successful. I took really good care of my people and the organization.

Sound familiar to any of my firefighter readers who are women?

Now I gotta tell ya, I was really surprised to read what she said because from the day I first met her she impressed me as a knowledgeable, articulate, and no-nonsense person. One who was going to stand up and fight for what’s right. And for all the years I’ve known her, she’s never disappointed!
Sexual Harassment in the Fire Service: How Can You Not Know?

So, if a strong and articulate and bright woman can feel like this over the course of her career (Remember, she rose through the ranks and retired as a captain), how are other women dealing with these issues and anxieties? And this woman served her career with what I consider to be a very progressive fire and EMS department.

How can we—men and women in the fire and EMS business—help women in our organizations in dealing with these kinds of issues early in their careers? And what can we do to continue to support them throughout their career? I don’t have the answers, but I’m betting some of you out there do.

Related Posts

I’m a fire service feminist

Male Privilege in the Fire Service

The Coming “Tsunami”: Sexual Harassment Litigation

 

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec and his wife of 30+ years now make their home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.