Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020
When Carol Brown joined the Boulder Fire Department in 1991, she was one of roughly a dozen female firefighters. Today a shift battalion chief, Brown is one of seven.
Though Boulder was among the earliest to admit females to its force — the first two women were hired in 1978, according to Brown — the number of women in the city’s firefighting force has fallen over the years as older employees have retired. Their ranks have not been refilled due to a dearth of new recruits, leaving just seven females among 99 firefighters.
Boulder will have to more than triple that figure if it hopes to reach its goal, recently added to the fire master plan update: that one-quarter of city firefighters will be women by 2030.
“Seven percent is not good,” said Michael Calderazzo, Boulder’s fire chief. “In the ’80s we were cutting-edge. Over time, we’ve sort of drifted backwards.”
A changing field: ‘More about brain than brawn’
It’s not just Boulder: There is a national push to increase the number of female firefighters. In 2017, roughly 4% of the United States’ 373,600 career firefighters were women, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Possible reasons for the gender disparity are numerous and hotly debated. The biggest problem, at least according to current female firefighters, is the lack of representation itself.
“The majority of people don’t know they can do the job unless they see someone like them in it,” Brown said. “That opens the door.”
Brown believes that an event which put firefighters at the front of the national consciousness also had an adverse effect on female recruits: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. New York City firemen were all over television and the newspapers, heralded as the heroes they were and are.
But they were all men, Brown said. In the years immediately following, she observed a dip in the number of women firefighter applicants across the Front Range before inching back up in recent years. (Notably, New York saw a very slight uptick in female recruits, though the city’s force remains well below the national average in terms of gender balance.)
One of the most frequently cited reasons women don’t want to be firefighters is the physical demands of the job. Many continue to believe that women — and plenty of men, too — simply lack the strength to perform necessary duties.
While firefighting is still a physically challenging career, Calderazzo said, it has become less so over time with advances in technology and changes in the field itself. For instance, today the department primarily responds to medical emergencies: In 2017, 77% of calls were for EMS. Just over 20% were fire-related.
“It’s not all lugging hose around and pulling people out of burning buildings” any more, Calderazzo said. “And we do everything as teams anyway, so we work together and we have the tools and techniques to make jobs easier. It’s more about brain than brawn.”
Just like the police, the fire department responds to a crisis situations such as suicide or domestic violence. It can help to have a woman on the crew, to make female community members more comfortable.
“We see people when they are hurt or scared or just anxious,” said firefighter Joan Ferris. It can help to have a softer touch, added Boulder’s Molly Cropp, a recent transfer from Longmont. Although it can be a bit of a stereotype, Cropp said, female firefighters tend to respond more compassionately.
There have also been instances when a woman’s smaller stature has come in handy, such as crawling through doggy doors to gain access to a home. Cropp has done so many times.
“You can learn to do the job regardless of size,” she said. It often means learning to do things differently from the way men do them, but it can still be done. “It’s not a limitation.”
For all the advantages being female entails and the changes in the way the job is done, firefighters still need to be able to, well, fight fires. In the arid West, that sometimes means wildfires.
“It is the most physically intense work you’ll ever do,” Calderazzo said. “Basically you’re on a hike full of smoke. And you’re carrying all kinds of junk.”
Aging stations pose challenge
A study of 1,200 firefighters nationwide found that men and women passed the standard Candidate Physical Ability Test — CPAT, for short — at the same rates when the tests were administered fairly. That research also revealed that departments often implement unfair, rigorous physical requirements that eliminate many female and male candidates.
Still, it does take a certain type of person to do the job, Cropp said. Recruiters often have success with women who played sports in high school and/or college: Cropp, Ferris and Brown are all former athletes.
There’s a team aspect, too. Crew members live in tight quarters during their 48-hour shifts. Being a female firefighter means bunking mostly with men. Newer stations are built with a diverse force in mind, with separate sleeping quarters and restrooms. Older ones like Boulder’s weren’t. Part of the department’s master plan includes replacing two stations for an estimated $40 million; the relocation of Fire Station No. 3 is already underway.
“Ours are 60-year-old stations,” Calderazzo said. “They were built when it was an all-male firefighting workforce (and) all they did (was fight) structure fires. So they’re not even built for what we do today. And if you’re a female, you have to share the bathroom and a bedroom with a bunch of snoring dummies. It’s not an inviting environment.”
There are other concerns, irrespective of gender. Firefighters have a higher rate of cancer than the general population, though this knowledge has brought improved safety procedures and equipment, Calderazzo noted. Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide occur among firefighters with five times the frequency as in civilians, and departments have gotten better at addressing mental challenges as well — another shift Calderazzo attributes to a post-9/11 world.
Despite these risks, Boulder’s female firefighters love their jobs. Reasons include the schedule — it “gives me a lot of time to do other things, free time to do what (I) want,” Ferris said — the “constant learning,” as Cropp puts it, and the camaraderie.
“We’re a family,” Brown said.
A major reported obstacle to women in the firefighting force — hostility from male members, according to the aforementioned report — doesn’t seem to apply in Boulder. There is a sense of having to prove oneself, all the women said, but that’s true of any new hire.
“We do have to rely on each other” in dangerous situations, Cropp said. But while the same can’t be said of every fire department, in Boulder “I felt that if you can do your job, awesome. Because if you’re male or female or neither or both, that’s what matters: that you can do the job.”
Like in any family, Brown said, there may occasionally be “the idiot uncle” who makes the odd comment to female firefighters. But usually when that happens, other members of the crew tend set him straight.
“We build each other up,” Ferris concurred.
Diversity of thought
For his part, Chief Calderazzo wants more women in the department because he believes it will make all firefighters stronger, breaking up the sort of homogenous thinking he sometimes notices.
“We’re a very traditional organization,” he said. “We probably more than anyone could benefit from a diversity of thought, whether that’s gender, race, ethnicity, background. Whatever it is, we need it.”
One example — though Calderazzo said it’s a bad one — is the iconic fireman’s helmet, emblem of the U.S. fire service.
“That helmet, it’s the worst helmet I can think of,” he said. “Practically speaking, they’re heavy: four pounds-plus on your head. We insist on a helmet with a big shield, big eagle on top, all these little extra things that could catch, knock your helmet off and expose your head.”
Yet in a recent discussion about possibly switching to a sleeker, lighter design such as the ones worn in Europe, the all-male research and development team couldn’t get around the fact that the fire helmet is a symbol of the job.
“The only reason we stick to that helmet is because we think it looks cool,” Calderazzo said. “With a few modifications to it, you won’t look like that picture-perfect guy, but you’re going to be a hell of a lot safer. To me, it’s like the Marlboro man: It’s the guy who looks cool smoking his way to his grave.
“I can’t help but think if we had a different point of view in that room, we would get a different thought and perspective.”
Gear in general remains the biggest challenge for female firefighters, Cropp said. It’s gotten better over her decade in various departments, but there’s still room for improvement in design.
“Women are not just smaller men,” she said.
From goal to action
So what is Boulder’s plan to bring more women on board? There isn’t much of one yet, Calderazzo admits. Right now it’s little more than a goal in the master plan.
“We debated whether to put that in there and call it out there the way we did,” he said. But “unless you put it out there, you’re never going to work on it.”
Calderazzo intends to begin by deciding who will spearhead the effort within the department. Then that team will research possible solutions, whittle them down to a handful of “low-cost” ideas and start work on them in 2021 — assuming city council adopts the master plan in February.
Brown would like to see recruiting revamped, something Calderazzo criticized as well. The department currently uses a master list of every applicant for firefighting jobs in the region. It’s cheaper than Boulder conducting its own recruitment efforts, but it limits the city to the gender-parity efforts done at a higher level, which clearly aren’t adequate.
Some fire departments recruit at athletic departments at high schools and universities. Others, like Longmont, work more closely with emergency medical technicians. Since an EMT license is required for firefighting, license-holders are a potentially good source for female recruits. Roughly 35% of EMTs in 2017 were women, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Whatever the eventual plan, Chief Calderazzo hopes his department can regain and even surpass its previous level of female members.The fire service can offer what many young employees, regardless of gender, are searching for today in a career: a sense of purpose.
“It’s the feeling that you’re able to help even just one individual with what is basically an emergency situation and give them a better outcome than they would have had otherwise,” he said. “The feeling of being able to do something positive for the community is unmatched.”
His enthusiasm is matched by the female firefighters. All had high praise for their chosen careers, even if it wasn’t something they always saw themselves doing.
“This is the coolest job ever,” said Cropp.
What you need to become a Boulder firefighter
EMT certification, which typically can be acquired from a local community college. At Front Range Community College, EMT certification requires 12 to 12.5 credits (with or without basic CPR training, which can be done prior to admittance) and costs between $2,000 and $3,000.
A high score on an exam administered by the Colorado FIREfighter Testing Consortium, offered twice per year. Calderazzo said Boulder typically invites around 100 applicants who scored 85 or above to the interview process. “It’s pretty competitive.”
CPAT certification, the standard test administered to assess physical fitness. Tests are offered at various locations throughout the Front Range.
— Shay Castle, firstname.lastname@example.org, @shayshinecastle
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