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Firefighting was formerly an all-male profession. While it is dominated by men in both professional and volunteer contexts today, there are women who actively fight fire alongside their male counterparts.
Female professional firefighters number about 559 (1.4% of the total), and there are 80,000 volunteer firefighters (7.5%).
The Hong Kong Fire service started recruiting women for control and ambulance staff in the 1980s, but the first firewoman was hired in 1994. As of 2003, there were 111 uniformed females, but only 8 were operational firefighters.
In 2003, the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services appointed 38-year old Meenakshi Vijayakumar as a divisional fire officer, making her the first female fire officer in the country. In 2013, the department inducted its second batch of women firefighters.
As of 2003 the Tokyo Fire Department had 666 female firefighters, 3.8% of the total. In 2009, as part of a recruitment drive it was stated that there were 17,000 female fire service staff, though it is not clear how many of these were operational, rather than providing support roles.
In Great Britain, Girton Ladies' College had an all-women's fire brigade from 1878 until 1932. In 1887 it was reported that women employed in a cigar factory in Liverpool had been formed into a fire brigade, and had effectively extinguished a fire at the factory. During the First World War, women's brigades carried out fire-fighting and rescues in the South of England. During the 1920s, women firefighting teams were employed by private fire brigades. At the beginning of the Second World War, 5000 women were recruited for the Auxiliary Fire Service, rising to 7000 in what was then the National Fire Service. Though trained in firefighting, they were not there for that purpose but for driving, firewatching etc. Many received awards for heroism.
The first women to form an official part of a local authority Fire Service were associated with Gordonstoun School near Elgin in Scotland, where staff and pupils had supported a volunteer unit of the local Grampian Fire Brigade since the school's return from Wales in 1948. Gordonstoun became co-educational in 1972 and trained women as firefighters from 1975, but these initially operated only within the school, not being permitted by the Brigade to join the official unit. The turning point took place in 1976, when the scale of a forest fire on Ben Aigan near Craigellachie on Speyside led the Brigade to seek volunteers from the local community to help fight the fire. Alongside personnel from local Royal Air Force bases, a group of trained women firefighters from Gordonstoun attended, and the performance and endurance of this group over seven days and nights of firefighting led the Grampian Fire Authority to agree to allow women to take on official front-line firefighting roles in the Brigade for the first time. The first woman to attend a fire as an official member of a local authority Fire Brigade was Gordonstoun pupil Bridget Koch, who attended a house fire on Coulardbank Road in Lossiemouth with a Grampian crew from Gordonstoun on 19 October 1978.
The first woman actually appointed as a public firefighter in peacetime was in 1982 to the London Fire Brigade (LFB). As of 2012 there are 257 female firefighters in the LFB. As of March 2007 the proportion of operational firefighters in the U.K. who were women was 3.1%.
The first known female firefighter of the United States was a slave from New York named Molly Williams, who was said to be "as good a fire laddie as many of the boys," and fought fires during the early 1800s. In the 1820s, Marina Betts was a volunteer firefighter in Pittsburgh. Lillie Hitchcock was made an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Engine Company, No. 5., in San Francisco in 1863, and fought fires for some years after.
In the 1910s, there were women's volunteer fire companies in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Los Angeles, California. In 1936 Emma Vernell became the first official female firefighter in New Jersey.
During World War II some women served as firefighters in the United States to replace firemen who joined the military; indeed, during part of the war two fire departments in Illinois were all-female. In 1942 the first all-female forest firefighting crew in California was created.
There were all-female fire companies in Kings County, California, and Woodbine, Texas, in the 1960s. In 1971 an all-female BLM (Bureau of Land Management) firefighting crew fought fires in the wilds of Alaska during the summer of 1971, and an all-female U.S. Forest Service firefighting crew fought fires in 1971 and 1972 in Montana.
The first known female fire chief in the U.S. was Ruth E. Capello. Ruth Capello was born in 1922 and became fire chief of the Butte Falls fire department in Butte Falls, Oregon in 1973. She died at the age of 70 in 1992. Sandra Forcier, the first known paid female firefighter (excluding forest firefighting) in the U.S., began working in North Carolina in 1973; she was a Public Safety Officer, a combination of police officer and firefighter. The first woman to work solely as a paid firefighter (excluding forest firefighting) was Judith Livers, hired by the Arlington County, Virginia, fire department in 1974. The first female head of a career fire department, Chief Rosemary Bliss in Tiburon, California, became fire chief in 1993. In the United States in 2002, approximately 2% of all firefighters were female.
Because of firefighting's predominantly male participants, firefighters are also generically called firemen. Now, as more women join the ranks, "firefighter" has become a widely used term that reflects the role and the various forms of gender participation. However the term "fireman" remains popular amongst the general public.
Since women have only recently begun to be formally considered firefighters, there have been many difficult adjustments for the fire service, which is a practice steeped in tradition, formalized, para-military relationships and discrimination.
One major hurdle to entrance into firefighting for women was the lack of facilities. The immediate problem of sleeping quarters and bathing areas had to be solved before women could participate fully in firefighting as an occupation and as a culture. Communal showers and open bunk halls were designed for men only. Today, although most stations are now designed to accommodate firefighters of both genders, some female firefighters still face issues related to their gender.
One of the greatest difficulties experienced by most women in the fire service is ill-fitting protective gear. Gear designed for men often will not fit correctly. In an environment where uncovered skin can be almost instantly covered in full-thickness burns, it is essential that protective gear fit properly.
According to a study at Cornell University, "the under-representation of women in firefighting is an alarming inequity that needs to be immediately addressed,” said Francine Moccio, director of the institute and co-author of the report, “A National Report Card on Women in Firefighting,” which was presented at the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services meeting, April 24, in Phoenix, Arizona. “Women are not getting recruited and hired because of an occupational culture that is exclusionary and unequal employment practices in recruiting, hiring, assigning and promoting women generally – and women of color in particular – in fire service,” Moccio added.
According to the publication LA Weekly, "Firefighters pull heavy lengths of hose, climb stairs while wielding giant power tools like chain saws, and lift 180-pound, 35-foot wooden ladders — akin to carrying a concrete lamppost. Firefighters' physicians say that a human expected to pull the heaviest hose lines must weigh at least 143 pounds. And that's just for starters. "Less than 10 percent body fat was not enough," says Mary, who purposely gained 15 pounds of muscle to achieve the bulk she needed."
There have been occasional charges of some departments lowering standards so that they could hire more women. In 2005, Laura Chick (the LA City Controller) stated in a report that Fire Chief Bamattre rolled back physical requirements and ordered that women be passed even if they failed their tests.
In a survey conducted by Women in the Fire Service in 1995, 551 women in fire departments across the U.S were asked about their experiences with sexual harassment and other forms of job discrimination. Eighty-eight percent of fire service women responding had experienced some form of sexual harassment at some point in their fire service careers or volunteer time. Nearly seventy percent of the women in the survey said they were experiencing ongoing harassment at the time of the study. Of the 339 women who said they had complained about harassment, only a third (115 women) listed only positive outcomes: investigating/taking care of the problem, and disciplining the harasser. Twenty-six percent said they were retaliated against for reporting the incident.