Male Privilege in the Fire Service

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

20151012_1st Woman Firefighter in USA

The Arlington County (VA) Fire Department made U.S. history when it hired Judith “Judy’’ Brewer as the nation’s first female career firefighter in 1974.

The following definition of white privilege is courtesy of Professor Arlene Avakian’s class The Social Construction of Whiteness and Women at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

White privilege is a set of advantages and/or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others. White privilege can exist without white people’s conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country.

“Being white means never having to think about it.”
-James Baldwin

A week or so ago, in preparation for an article I’d been assigned to write by my editor at, I posted a request for information on my LinkedIn and Facebook accounts asking for input on turnout gear fitting issues. One of the responses I received was from Cathy, a career firefighter with a large county fire and EMS department located in Virginia.

In reading her response, along with several others of a similar nature from other women, I believe that in the fire service in the USA we have a culture of male privilege. That definition would be:

Male privilege is a set of advantages and/or immunities that male firefighters benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others. Male privilege can exist without male firefighters’ conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the gender hierarchy in the fire service in the USA.

Cathy’s Story

20151012_Woman FF Senior

This is NOT Cathy. Just another woman firefighter helping to make a difference in her community.

I have a few issues with my turnout gear and it has taken me approximately 3 years to get someone to listen and realize that I am not just trying to draw attention to the fact that I am a female and I want to stand out. It appears that this is the perception, but I just want to blend in with all of them and I feel that I am not part of the system that we have because I am different.

I think that the trunk of my body must be a little shorter. When I wear my SCOTT SCBA, the cylinder sticks up a little higher and the brim of my helmet lays on it. It was so bad, that I could not just tilt my head to the side a little and look up when needed. I had to bend over and then turn my head a lot to see what was above me. I mentioned something to my crew and then to my officer.

I think they became uncomfortable to the fact that I would speak out against our issued gear. I only stated that my

Young women attending Arlington County (VA) Fire Department Skills Camp, a summer camp to give girls and young women exposure to the fire service as a career option.

Young women attending Arlington County (VA) Fire Department Girls Camp, a summer camp that gives girls and young women exposure to the fire service as a career option.

helmet keeps me from “effectively doing my job.” This went on for a couple of years. I worked up the courage to take it forward to the safety office. Didn’t hear anything for a couple of months, then the email came and I have never seen so many names cc’d before. I felt kind of isolated and it felt like I had done something wrong.

So, somebody finally stated that I needed to change the way that I was wearing my SCBA. I had made numerous attempts to reposition my SCBA, but nothing worked and I even tried repositioning my helmet. I eventually was issued the old salad bowl [type of helmet] and it is amazing. There were a lot of political issues that occurred, and I still get comments of why I choose to be different. Well, I am . We are all a little different.

I have an hourglass shape and my coat fits great in my chest and back, but it is the same diameter all the way down and when it reaches my hips, well, you know when they ask “does this make my butt look big”? Well, it makes me feel like my butt is an enormous battleship. It was very tight. I was able to fasten my coat, but there was not room for movement, so I removed the bottom of my coat, which is where the name [panel] attaches. When I was questioned why I removed my name tag, I explained my circumstance and the cycle repeated itself.

20151012_1st AA Women FF in Atlanta FR

Atlanta’s first female African American firefighters started work in 1977.

We have a new logistics manager who happens to be a female and had good knowledge about it. I have been given the opportunity to talk with her and she immediately recognized the problem with my coat and is working to resolve it. I felt the weight lift off of me, when I realized I was going to get help.

This probably appears that I am venting, but it feels good to put this in words for you. This has been ugly for me and I have grown and developed confidence and have learned to stand alone when I feel strong about a circumstance, so I am actually grateful that this is happening. I have had many positive results with all that has occurred, but it is a choice to keep a good attitude.

I know I have probably portrayed this as a negative impact, but I have 20151012_Woman FF Medicused it for goodness. I have taken 4 minutes off of my annual work performance evaluation test and I now don’t have to worry about something falling from above and hitting me. I can also look up and see the ladders on the side of the apparatus when I take them down. It has been amazing.

Does this happen in your department? If you’re a male firefighter reading this post, do you “get it”?

It’s not about the equipment. We could just as easily be discussing sleeping quarters and bathroom facilities in fire stations. Or professional development and promotional opportunities. Shoot, we could even go all the way back to entry-level training to get the job in the first place.

No, it’s about the fire service institutions and men–who still hold the vast majority of leadership positions in the fire service–who make the rules. Even beyond the rules, it’s male privilege “at work”.

See Related: Arlington County Hires First Full-Time Female Firefighter in USA

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

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 and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].