Empowering Women in the Fire Service

By Judy Thill

When you picture a firefighter or emergency medical services (EMS) provider, what image comes to mind? For most people, the answer would be a man in turnout gear or an EMS uniform. Yet a growing number of women are breaking this stereotype and proving they have what it takes to serve their communities in this remarkable way.

Swelling the Ranks

Although still relatively small in numbers, women are out there, breaking the gender barriers wherever they can. About eight percent of firefighters today are women, and that number is higher (11 percent) when looking at just the volunteer fire service. On the EMS side, 23 percent of medics and 28 percent of EMTs are women.

Women CAN do these jobs and have proven themselves to be as capable as men. But in an occupation that has long been dominated by males, how do more women break through? For many women who are presently in the fire service, they were empowered at some time throughout their lives and encouraged to shoot for the stars. That is what happened to me.

A Head Start

Growing up, I had two wonderful parents and a big sister who all encouraged me, at an early age, to try for anything I wanted. While all children need encouragement, to even out the future playing field for little girls it is good to start confidence building through empowerment at an early age.

At a time when many fire and EMS departments need more recruits, it makes sense to look to women. After all, women make up half of the U.S. population, providing a big pool of potential new candidates. Women have shown they can physically do these jobs, but they can also offer other advantages. They bring new viewpoints, experiences, and skills to the table that can enhance the capabilities of the department.

As we look toward the future of the fire service, it is important that we start changing attitudes and perceptions among the next generation as to who can be a firefighter or EMS provider. Girls fire service camps are a great way to build confidence and empowerment in a safe and positive environment. There are also local junior firefighter programs, which give youth a taste of what it is like to be a firefighter or EMS provider, while fostering teamwork, responsibility, and leadership among members. These opportunities are beneficial in building confidence and self-esteem regardless of whether they continue in the fire service as adults.

Having a positive role model is another key to getting more women to join the fire service. Women need to see someone who looks like them doing that same job. Seeking out female firefighters, medics, or EMTs to talk with is a great idea. 

Allies and Comrades

Women trying to break into a male-dominated work environment need to feel empowered starting as early as possible. But just as important are male champions to help break down those gender biases. Male champions can help break down the stereotypes so that women feel accepted and part of the team, and they also have more success trying to convince other males to accept a female in non-traditional roles.

Are you empowering the females in your life? Are you willing to be a champion for all girls and women? With your help in those areas, more women will be able to walk through wide-open doors of fire departments, feel accepted, and never look back!

If you’re interested in pursuing a role in the fire service, visit www.MakeMeAFirefighter.org to find a volunteer opportunity near you.

Judy Smith Thill is fire chief of the City of Inver Grove Heights, MN, and a director on the National Volunteer Fire Council.

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