A Brief History of Women in Fire

This association is open to anyone who aspires to lead and serve as a networking, mentoring resource and support group for those aspiring to move up the fire service career ladder and/or to promote excellence in fire service leadership. Fire officers from all areas of the Fire Service including Fire Prevention, Administration, Support Services etc., as well as other organizations related to the Fire Service are welcomed into this association.

The International Association Women in Fire & Emergency Services (iWomen) now called Women in Fire, celebrated its 32st anniversary in 2014 with much to be proud of and with confidence to face the challenges of the coming years.

Women in Fire started out in 1982 as hardly an organization at all. It consisted of fewer than 200 women firefighters, scattered throughout the U.S., with an interest in networking. They received a typewritten newsletter once a month and were listed in a directory that helped them contact each other. They had no by-laws, no structure or governing body, and no official, legal existence to make then a real organization. More importantly, the group had no money, and no idea how long the networking impulse might last. What it did have was the collective energy of dozens of fire service women who knew communicating with each other could provide comfort, support, solutions, and fun.

The story from there has been one of steady growth. Women in Fire’s membership has increased almost 600% in the intervening years and hundreds of new members now join every year: women from all aspects of the fire service, as well as supportive male allies and a number of institutions, including fire departments and college fire science programs. But, the old roots have not been forgotten: more than fifty of the women who joined in 1982 and 1983 are still members.

The increase in Women in Fire’s activities and scope has paralleled the organization’s numerical growth. Women in Fire provides referrals and advocacy for women with problems on the job, offers resources on recruitment, reproductive safety, physical abilities testing, sexual harassment and other issues to fire departments and their personnel, and interacts with other organizations to provide a voice for women in the national levels of the fire service. Women in Fire’s biennial conferences are educationally valuable and a lot of fun. The organization’s work with the U.S. Fire Administration and other agencies has significantly improved the quality of resources available on fire service women’s issues.

What does all of this mean to the individual woman firefighter? It can mean that there is someone to help her if a problem arises. It can mean a few days every two years sharing successes and a love of the fire service with others who’ve been there and understand. It can mean a connection with someone from another fire department who can provide useful information for a proposal or a training exercise. It can mean a fire department will receive reliable guidance when it doesn’t know how to handle a firefighter’s pregnancy. It can mean mentorship from a fellow officer or chief when she’s promoted. Most simply, it means that a woman doesn’t have to shoulder alone the burden that comes with being a pioneer.

Women in Fire/s first 32 years have been exciting and rewarding, and the future is equally full of promise. The organization has an active, involved leadership, widespread name recognition, and a solid financial base. Exciting areas of growth for the near future include the wildland sector, as we attempt to bridge the enduring gap between wildland firefighters and their structural counterparts, and with fire service personnel from other countries, as women firefighters and rescue workers in Canada, Great Britain, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Colombia, Panama, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa join the network and participate in iWomen conferences and other events.

Most importantly, Women in Fire still has that one critical element: the collective energy of hundreds of fire service women who know the value of a network,x such as this one. It is to all of them that the credit for iWomen’s continued success belongs.

Origins and Growth of Women in Fire

In 1980, Ohio Fire Academy invited an area firefighter, Terese Floren, to teach a two-day class on “Women in the Fire and Rescue Service.” In order to assemble background material on which to base the class, she did a survey of women in the U.S. who, like her, were career-level firefighters.

It is likely that fewer than two hundred women worked as career firefighters at the time; no one really knew where they were or how many there were. Floren assembled her list from all available sources and eventually received completed surveys back from sixty women. Shortly thereafter, she was invited to attend two symposia sponsored by the U.S. Fire Administration on the subject of women in the fire service, and to work as statistician on a joint project of the USFA and IAFF that surveyed fire departments on the subject of women firefighters. The contacts made at the two conferences and the information gained working in Washington added significantly to the knowledge and data base that would be the nucleus of the new organization.

In the spring of 1981, Floren was contacted by a Colorado firefighter named Linda Willing, who had recently met a woman firefighter from Missouri who had told her that some sort of women firefighters’ network was starting up. Willing was interested in being involved in whatever might be going on. The two decided to produce a directory of fire service women who were interested in getting in touch with each other, and to create a newsletter for women firefighters.

The directory and the first issue of the newsletter were published in the late fall of 1982. The network had its birth right there, with FireWork. Women in the Fire Service did not start out intending to be a “group:” it had no membership cards, dues, or even a well-defined purpose. But within a year, the organization had by-laws and had legally incorporated, and tax-exempt status was granted early in 1984.

Women in the Fire Service held its first national conference in Boulder, Colorado, in 1985, and continues to hold what are now international conferences every two years. Leadership Training Seminars were added for the even-numbered years, beginning in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1994. Women in Fire has become involved in the NFPA standards-making process, presented workshops at conferences of many fire service agencies, provided networking for attorneys handling cases for fire service women, and in general expanded into many areas that its original members could never have envisioned. Most importantly, it continues to provide the support for fire service women everywhere that was the original impetus for the organization and continues to be its primary purpose.

On September 15, 2007 the outcome of a joint meeting – hosted by The National Fire Academy – between the boards of trustees of Women in the Fire Service (WFS) and Women Chief Fire Officers (WCFO) was the merger of the two organizations to form the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services.

In a joint statement, WFS President, Cheryl Horvath, and WCFO President, Laurie Mooney, said: “The timing could not have been more conducive to our merger, WFS has just celebrated its 25th anniversary and WCFO it’s 10th. Our coming together allows us to combine resources and focus our energy and momentum. The expansion of the mission of both organizations will engage more women, strengthen partnerships, and more effectively advocate for the continued advancement of women in fire and emergency services.”

Terese Floren, WFS Cofounder and Executive Director, retires after 25 years of service. Floren, who cofounded Women in the Fire Service in 1982, left firefighting in 1989 to work full time for the organization. One of the country’s first women career firefighters, Floren has written extensively on gender equity issues in the fire service. She was co-author and editor of The Changing Face of the Fire Service (produced under contract to the U.S. Fire Administration / FEMA and published by them in 1993) and of Many Faces, One Purpose and Many Women Strong, also produced under contract to USFA/FEMA.

Brief History of Women Chief Fire Officers

wfo-past-presidentsThe Women Chief Fire Officers (WCFO) was an organization of professional women chief officers, and others serving in various capacities within the fire service, dedicated to providing a proactive network designed to enhance, enrich, and educate current and future women chief officers. The organization valued excellence in leadership and demand integrity and honesty from themselves and others. Each of their initiatives was a deliberate attempt to develop future leaders for the fire services who would embrace these values. Membership was open to anyone who aspired to lead and serves as a networking, mentoring resource and support group for those who aspired to move up the fire service career ladder and/or to promote excellence in fire service leadership. Fire officers from all areas of the Fire Service including fire prevention, administration, support services etc., as well as other organizations related to the Fire Service were welcomed. They believed that everybody should have the opportunity to grow and reach their desired capacity and they strived to create an environment in which everyone was treated with respect and dignity.

Strong Support and Mentoring

In the fire service we are tasked with managing and mitigating all types of risks and hazards and preparing our respective departments for homeland security. Each year we are being asked to accomplish more of these tasks with less money which require that we generate new ideas and non-traditional ways of getting the job done. We encounter pressures that pull us in all directions. We face one set of challenges from our coworkers, another from those who report directly to us, and still other challenges from our supervisors, political leaders, the community and family. Additionally, some of us face the added challenge of having to serve in a department in which there is very little support of women and/or one that is represented by a very small number of women.

Many of the members of WCFO have served as chief officers for quite a number of years and as such, have first-hand knowledge of the concerns and challenges you face. They have a wealth of experience, knowledge, skills and abilities. Mentoring is a successful way to tap into this talent, explore new ways of doing things, network, exchange ideas, develop your career, solve problems and get desired results. A mentor is an experienced person who provides career guidance and support in a variety of ways to another person by acting as a role model, guide, tutor, coach or confidante.

Members of WCFO Mentoring program seek to share our experience, strength, and hope with other members who are interested in sharpening their skills, becoming a better leader, advancing through the ranks, and otherwise making a positive contribution to the fire industry. The program is designed to support current and potential fire service leaders by providing a forum for open and honest communication and by offering coaching and counseling. We are willing to take a special interest in helping others develop into a successful professional with hopes that a personal, as well as, professional relationship will develop over an extended period affording both the mentor and mentee an opportunity to exchange experience, information, and encouragement. The mentoring program strategies include guidance and advice on education and technical training, leadership, career development and community service.

  • Education and technical training
  • Leadership
  • Career Development
  • Community Service

An effective mentoring relationship is characterized by mutual respect, trust, understanding, and empathy. Good mentors are able to share life experiences and wisdom, as well as technical expertise. They are good listeners, good observers, and good problem-solvers. They make an effort to know, accept, and respect the goals and interests of the mentee. In the end, they establish an environment in which ones accomplishment is limited only by the extent of his or her talent.