Women & Firefighting

Women & Firefighting

Structural Firefighting

Historical changes in firefighting

If you were a city firefighter in the 1960’s, your job usually consisted of taking care of the fire engines, the station and putting out fires. Your protective gear — probably a canvas or rubber coat, thigh-length boots, and a heavy leather helmet with no eye protection — would now be considered primitive and unsafe. You probably had nothing to protect your lungs from the smoke and heat of a fire; coughing and choking on toxic fumes, and sometimes throwing up afterwards, were just part of being a good, tough firefighter. Overall concern for the health and fitness of firefighters was minimal. If anyone exercised on duty, it was usually more out of boredom or a personal desire to be stronger, and the workouts were usually limited to lifting weights someone had brought in from home.

Other than fighting fires and, in some places, staffing load-and-go ambulances, you performed few community services. Most firefighters had a high-school diploma at best; college and specialized fire service education were unheard of. Promotion to officers’ and chiefs’ positions came largely through seniority or through tests that measured your ability to memorize pages from designated books and pass a multiple-choice test based on that information.

By the 2000’s, almost all of this had changed. Firefighters in most fire departments take part in public education, fire inspections, and other forms of community outreach. Almost all fire departments provide emergency medical response at the basic level and many offer full-service paramedic care and patient transport. Special units of firefighters are trained to handle hazardous materials (“hazmat”) incidents, fast-water rescue, dive rescue (SCUBA), and technical (high-angle and collapse) rescue. Arson investigation, fire code enforcement and fire safety education often form separate divisions within the fire department. A wide range of community-service careers has replaced the limited choices of a generation ago.

The field has become increasingly professional. It’s not unusual for firefighters to have at least a two-year degree in fire science or some other field, and chiefs of most major departments are expected to have master’s degrees. Fire departments, colleges and specialized training programs provide ongoing education in command and management skills for company officers and chiefs. Promotions in many fire departments are based on the employee’s performance in a promotional assessment center instead of, or in addition to, more traditional types of tests and interviews.

The fire service workplace has also become more professional. Fire stations once boasted a fraternity-house atmosphere, the men’s “home away from home.” Historically, this made sense: only four or five generations ago, firefighters worked six 24-hour days out of every seven and essentially lived at the firehouse. Up until World War II, most departments used a 24-on/24-off schedule that persists in the federal sector today. With so much of one’s time spent in the station, and with work time encompassing aspects of domestic life such as cooking, eating, showering and sleeping, it is not surprising that firehouses were viewed as very different from other workplaces. Drinking, sexual activity (with girlfriends or prostitutes), reading or viewing of pornography and other traditional male social behaviors that would have been completely unacceptable in other work environments were often commonplace in fire stations.

Gradually, in most places, as firefighter pay has improved and the educational background of personnel has increased, such traditions have yielded to more enlightened management and professional standards have replaced frat-house cultural norms in the fire service. Firefighters are now expected to behave like responsible public employees during their time on duty and to treat the fire station like the workplace it is.

Organizational change happens slowly and unevenly. As might be expected, some fire departments have come farther than others; many have yet to make many of the changes mentioned above. On most departments, the most senior firefighters — those with more time on the job — were brought up in the old ways and may or may not have adapted well to change. This resistance can cause conflict and resentment. Those who represent change, such as women firefighters, sometimes bear the brunt of this resentment.

Because the fire service has changed, so has the way you should approach the possibility of becoming a firefighter. Back when firefighting was seen as manual labor, semi-skilled work suitable to immigrant families, the idea of preparing for it as a career was unheard of. But today, anyone who applies for a firefighting job without preparing for it beforehand is unlikely to be hired. Much is expected of today’s firefighters and the competition for jobs is tough.

Why would I want to be a firefighter?

Firefighting isn’t for everyone. People who are seriously afraid of heights or confined spaces, who don’t function well in a crisis, or who in general would rather not introduce elements of danger into their lives, are unlikely to be attracted to the job. Some people prefer a typical business schedule to working 24-hour or other overnight shifts. Other people may view the physical, manual-labor aspects of the job with distaste.

But for those who do not see these aspects of the job as deterrents, firefighting is an exciting, ever-changing, highly rewarding occupation. Most firefighters enjoy the warmth of camaraderie among the crew, the challenge of bringing physical skills and mental abilities to play in what for others is an emergency, and the opportunity to provide critical, life-saving services in a moment of need. Many also appreciate the 24-hour work schedule, the job security in times of downsizing, and — in most fire departments — good pay and benefits.

What does it take to be a good firefighter?

Women considering the fire service may be discouraged if all the firefighters they know or see are men. It may seem that, even if the door isn’t officially closed to women, no woman could ever be enough like a male firefighter to be really good at the job. If you are considering becoming a firefighter, be aware that there are many ways to be a good firefighter, and they don’t necessarily require you to be male or just like a man. What are some of the attributes of a good firefighter?

  • Honest and dependable
  • Learns quickly; can remember and use what s/he’s learned when the pressure is on
  • Physically fit: is committed to a healthy lifestyle and to maintaining fitness
  • Functions well as part of a team
  • Cares about and respects co-workers and members of the community
  • Communicates and listens well
  • Is dedicated to her/his work
  • Has, and uses, common sense
  • Is emotionally stable and deals with stress appropriately
  • Has a sense of humor
  • Is open-minded and flexible, willing to try new things and listen to new ideas

No one person has all of these attributes. If all firefighters were the same, as a group their strengths would be redundant and their weaknesses would be magnified. But everyone is different. Each firefighter brings individual strengths to the team, and it is this variety of strengths that gives the team multiple options and balances out any individual weaknesses.

It is also important to note that these traits are not specific to men or women. Women have been functioning successfully as career firefighters and officers for more than 25 years, and as volunteers for much longer. Even if you’re the first woman on your department, you’re part of a strong tradition of women who are dedicated to the fire service and who have found their place in it.

Preparing for your career as a firefighter

Don’t expect to become a firefighter tomorrow. In the first place, most fire departments only give an entry-level (hiring) test every two years or so, and it may be several months after that before the first recruit class is hired from the resulting list. More importantly, your approach to your firefighting career should be even longer-range than that. Getting ready for to become a firefighter should start years before you ever submit your first job application, ideally while you’re still in high school. This will give you time to prepare yourself to be a good candidate for the job, as well as to decide if firefighting is really right for you.

In school, make sure you have the basics in place: good reading comprehension and writing skills, computer literacy, basic math and typing. Chemistry and biology, shop, auto mechanics, carpentry and drafting will also be useful. If your community (or the one where you hope to work as a firefighter) has a significant linguistic minority, learn that language. In the U.S., this will usually be Spanish, but it may also be Hmong, Korean, Mandarin or Vietnamese. Useful for all firefighters to know are the basics of American Sign Language, the language used by deaf and hearing-impaired people in every U.S. community.

In reality, most women don’t decide on a firefighting career until long after high school. If you’re already out of school, you can study most of the above subjects in a two- or four-year college program. Colleges in every state offer degrees in fire science or fire protection engineering, and a few have residential firefighting programs that give students the chance to get hands-on experience and training. If you are pursuing a degree in a different area, look for other courses that may help, such as public speaking, basic psychology, anatomy, and government. Colleges sometimes offer their students help in developing their test-taking and job-interview skills; be sure to take advantage of these.

Education happens outside of school, too. The Red Cross in your community teaches first-aid and water safety classes; either it or the American Heart Association offers CPR training. Seek out opportunities to be trained as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician); volunteer fire departments and state agencies sometimes offer this training. If fire departments in your area give hiring priority to paramedics, and you’re interested in becoming one, consider putting yourself through paramedic school. This takes time and money, but it can considerably enhance your chances of being hired.

Depending on where you live, you may also have the option of putting yourself through basic firefighter training. In some states, you can only get this training once you’ve been hired by a fire department. And many departments put all newly hired firefighters through recruit training, regardless of what prior training they may have. But in states such as Florida, where vocational schools and other agencies offer basic firefighter training to any interested student, many fire departments give hiring priority to applicants who have completed this training on their own.

Another way to get firefighter training, and to find out how much you enjoy the work, is to become a fire cadet or a volunteer firefighter. Some fire departments have cadet programs or Explorer posts that allow high-school students to learn basic firefighting skills and spend time in the stations. For those over 18 (or in some cases 21), service as a volunteer firefighter can provide excellent experience, education and connections to job opportunities. If your area is served by a career-level fire department, find out if the department has any programs that involve community volunteers, such as checking residential smoke detectors or teaching CPR. If you have your EMT or paramedic certification, check out options for volunteering in hospital emergency rooms.

Your physical training should be ongoing: don’t expect to sit in classes or behind a desk for years and then be able to get in shape for a fire department test after you’ve submitted your application. Don’t think of it as preparing to take a test: what you’re actually doing is making an investment in a career that requires a high level of fitness. Actual firefighting takes up only a small percentage of the time firefighters spend on duty, but that small percentage can demand extremes of strength and endurance from everyone involved. Despite all the progress that has been made in equipment and technology, fighting a fire is still strenuous, hot, dirty and often dangerous work.

Also see: “Fitness for Firefighters”

Becoming a firefighter means a lifelong commitment to physical fitness, and the earlier you make this commitment, the better. Get involved in sports teams, regular workouts, and other activities that will develop your strength and fitness and give you confidence in physically demanding situations. Your training routine should involve a weightlifting program as well as aerobic activities. (Be sure to get your doctor’s okay before you begin any new training routine, however.)

While you’re preparing yourself for your fire service career and waiting for your chosen fire department to announce a hiring opportunity, you’ll probably have to work at another job. If you don’t already have a job, look for other openings in the fire department or elsewhere in city or county government; these can provide you with excellent inside information, not only about job opportunities but about city government and the people involved. Some towns and cities give firefighter hiring preference to candidates who already work for the municipality, which can be a significant advantage.

Working as a dispatcher at the 911 alarm center is another good introduction to firefighters and their work. If you are a student or for other reasons have summers available, consider applying for a seasonal job with wildland fire crews. Whatever your job, if it is not one that keeps you physically fit, be sure to integrate sports and other physical activities into your life outside of work.

This article is adapted from material developed by Women in Fire under contract to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s U.S. Fire Administration, and published by FEMA/USFA as Many Women Strong: A Handbook for Women Firefighters.

Picking the right fire department for you

Choosing where you want to work as a firefighter may be a decision you’ll live with for the next twenty or thirty years. It’s worth making carefully. Read our page about Choosing a Department.

Taking tests for practice

Taking any fire department test you can, just for practice, is a good idea to help make you a better test-taker: even though tests differ considerably, people usually improve by taking them. Having gone through a few tests gets you used to the process and helps you feel less nervous when you take the one for the department you want to join.

On the other hand, you run one significant risk: you may do well enough on the test to be offered a job. And if you do get an offer, you may find it very hard to say no, even though it isn’t really where you wanted to work. The financial security of having a firefighting job right now can be very appealing in comparison with the possibility of maybe getting on your chosen department a year from now. It may just seem like bad luck or foolishness to turn down a job that’s offered. If you aren’t sure you can be firm in your resolve, don’t take a test for a fire department you know you don’t want to work for.

The exception to this would be if you plan to work there only a short while and then move on to another department. While this gives fire department managers fits, it is done, and many smaller fire departments that can’t afford attractive pay have a high turnover of two- and three-year firefighters going on to larger and better-paying departments. This may be the option that best suits you, especially if you desperately need a job now. It is usually easier to be hired by a fire department if you’re already working for another one, as long as your work record is good.

The negative side to getting on just any fire department is that if it is a very badly run department, you may get turned off to the fire service or may not be able to stand being on the job long enough to get hired elsewhere. Women particularly run risks if the department is badly managed and fails to control or punish ugly behavior such as sexual harassment. Working in a hostile environment can harm your mental health or even, in the worst cases, put your physical safety at risk. Discriminatory behavior by co-workers and managers can result in you receiving poor training and bad evaluations that will harm your chances of getting hired elsewhere. Not many fire departments like this are still around, but they can be found here and there. Working for one of them is not the best idea, even in the short term.

The application and testing processes

Once you’ve narrowed your list down to those departments you really want to work for, make sure you know how to find out when they’ll be hiring. Get on a mailing list to receive their job announcement, if possible, or watch the classified ads or other places where openings are posted. When a fire department on your list announces a hiring opportunity, get a copy of all the available information and make sure you understand everything on it: dates, deadlines, qualification requirements. If you’re not sure about something, make a phone call to get clarification.

Different departments use different application processes. Some will mail out their application forms; others distribute them only in person, and sometimes only at a specified time and place. Find out what you need to bring when picking up your application, such as a drivers license or proof of residency. Sometimes the department will limit the number of applications given out; if this is the case, plan to be on hand very early to wait in line. You may be charged a fee (usually $20-$35) when you submit your application. Sometimes applicants with severe financial constraints can ask for this fee to be waived.

Some fire departments, particularly in California, now use lotteries to reduce the number of applicants. Instead of bearing the expense of testing all firefighter applicants (which sometimes number in the thousands for only a handful of positions), they randomly pick an allotted number of the applicants to continue through the process. This is an unfortunate practice and justifiably frustrating to the candidate who has prepared herself or himself for a firefighting career and expects to be able to compete for a job on the basis of qualifications, not chance. Nonetheless, it is a fact of life for the present, and unless it is successfully challenged in court, there is little or nothing the candidate can do about it except try not to be too disappointed.

Find out everything you can about the hiring process. How many steps does it involve, and what are they? Many variations are possible, but a typical process will look something like this:

The test is announced and applications are accepted. (In some places, applications are taken only on the day of testing.) Never lie on a job application. If you are asked for information that you feel may be harmful to your chances of being hired, write an explanatory note or ask to make an appointment with someone in charge to explain the circumstances.

The written test is administered to all applicants.

The physical abilities test is administered, either to all applicants or to those who passed the written test. In the past, fire departments often held the written and physical tests on the same day, but this is becoming less common. If you are traveling a long distance to go through the hiring process, you may have to be prepared to make several trips.

The fire department or a contracted agency conducts a background check on applicants.

Applicants are given a psychological evaluation. (Only a small percentage of fire departments use this step.)

A hiring board or the fire chief conducts one or more interviews with top candidates.

Candidates who make it through these steps successfully are placed on a hiring or eligibility list. The order in which names appear on the list and the rules that govern the order in which candidates can be hired vary from place to place. The list may be kept for one year, two years, or longer, depending on local policies and needs. When the department is ready to hire from the list, it will make a conditional offer of employment to the selected applicants, and send them through a medical evaluation,which sometimes includes a drug screening. Only after all of this has the applicant earned the right to be hired as a fire recruit. (Smaller departments, or those that hire only certified firefighters, may hire applicants as probationary firefighters rather than fire recruits.)

The written test

Written tests for entry-level firefighter candidates are usually general-knowledge, civil-service type tests. A few fire departments may still use tests on firefighting subjects, based on a study guide distributed in advance. In Canada, so-called mechanical aptitude tests may still be given; in the U.S., these have for the most part been abandoned as not relevant to the job.

Take advantage of any study groups or preparatory test-taking assistance the fire department may offer, particularly if you are uncomfortable with written tests or if English is not your first language. If the department does not provide this kind of help, you may be able to find similar programs at local community colleges or university outreach programs. Be sure to talk with people who have taken the department’s test before. Even though the exact questions will be different, the types of questions, the format, and the test administration process may be similar.

As with every stage of the process, know exactly where the test will be given, what you must bring with you (a photo ID, for example), and what time it will start. Plan to get there early. If you’re driving a long way or to an unfamiliar part of town, give yourself plenty of extra time to get there. If you arrive even five minutes late, you will probably not be allowed to take the test or continue on in the hiring process. Do not rely on other applicants for information about the testing process; deal directly with fire department or other testing officials regarding any questions or unusual situations.

The physical abilities test

Different fire departments use different kinds of physical abilities tests, and the exact components vary. The test you take may be a basic assessment of strength and fitness using measures such as sit-ups and a mile-and-a-half run, or it may be made up of events simulating tasks that are done at fires, such as hose drags and ladder raises. Find out all you can about the test in advance. If the department has a videotape of its test available, watch it as many times as you can. Be sure to attend test practice sessions if the department offers them, preferably well in advance of your testing date. This will give you time to re-evaluate your workout routine or address any problems you discover.

If you know what will be on the test several weeks or months beforehand, adjust your exercise program accordingly. A trainer at your gym or a coach at school should be able to help you tailor your workout to the specific events of the test. Find out how will the test be scored. Many fire departments’ tests are pass-fail; know what you need to do (usually a time you must meet) in order to pass. Some fire departments factor the applicant’s time on the physical test into an overall score that determines their place on the hiring list. In such cases, the faster you get throughthe test, the better your chances are of being hired, so you should be prepared for an all-out effort.

On the day of the test, arrive early, well-nourished and well-rested. Take appropriate clothing: sweats, good athletic shoes, gloves if required. If the testing process will be a long one, make sure you have water and high-energy snacks on hand. If the day is hot, make sure you’ve drunk plenty of water before you start the test. Warm up and stretch just as you would before any strenuous workout.

Despite the fact that everyone is competing against each other for the same few job openings, a camaraderie often develops among the applicants taking a firefighter test on the same day. Most women find this friendship includes them, even if there are few women taking the test. Such support and encouragement can help you perform well, even when it comes from total strangers.

Make sure you understand all of the instructions for each part of the test. Ask questions if necessary for clarification. If applicants are to wear firefighter protective clothing while taking the test, make sure you get gear that fits. Don’t be hesitant to call attention to yourself in this way: having a glove fall off or a helmet slip down over your eyes during the test may mean the difference between passing and failing. The fire department or other testing agency is responsible for ensuring that the test conditions are as similar as possible for all candidates, and they must make gear available to fit candidates of all sizes.

To read one woman’s story about taking an entry-level firefighter physical abilities test, see “CPAT: One Woman’s Experience”

The interview

An interview for a firefighter position should be approached in much the same way as one for any other professional job; the days are long past when it was appropriate to show up in casual clothes or with a casual attitude. Business attire and a professional outlook will demonstrate that you are serious about a career in the fire service and respectful of the interviewers.

Many books on job-hunting offer excellent advice on the job interview, and firefighter candidates should take advantage of these. They cover common-sense items that are overlooked appallingly often by job applicants (“Don’t chew gum during the interview”) as well as many other areas of preparation, appearance and behavior. For a reality check on personal mannerisms that you may not otherwise have noticed, have a friend put you through a simulated interview, and videotape it. Watch the tape to see if you’ve presented yourself as someone you would want to hire. Do you make good eye contact with the interviewer? Do you sit comfortably and confidently in your chair, or do you slouch and wriggle? Is your speech punctuated with “umm’s” and “you know’s”? Work to correct any weaknesses that show up.

Don’t lie awake nights trying to memorize, word for word, the perfect answer to every possible question you might be asked; you’ll drive yourself crazy and lose a lot of valuable sleep. Instead, think of the general kinds of questions interviewers are likely to ask, and know the points you want to cover in your reply. Why do you want the job? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?

Be sure you’ve done your homework about the fire department. Know what services it provides, what community activities it’s involved in, what programs it’s proud of. Talking in your interview about how you’d like to become a firefighter/paramedic won’t impress the interview panel if the fire department has just contracted its paramedic service out to a private company. Identify for yourself the ways your particular background and skills can make you an asset to this fire department, and bring these up in the interview.

After the tests are over

If you have applied for a job on a large fire department, be patient. It may take a long time to get all the applicants through the process, and when you’re waiting to hear about a job, it will seem even longer. If you’re dealing with a smaller department, particularly one where women are not yet welcome as firefighters, you may need to be a little more aware of how things are progressing.

There’s a fine line between staying on top of things and making a nuisance of yourself, but you do want to keep alert to make sure the process doesn’t bypass you. If you have any questions about how things are being run, and particularly if you learn that candidates lower on the hiring list have been offered jobs when you have not, ask questions and get answers in writing if possible.

Unless there is just one fire department you want to work for, keep putting your application in and taking tests with other departments while you’re waiting to hear from the first one. You can always withdraw from a hiring process if you get a job elsewhere, and you may end up in the enviable position of having two job offers to choose from.

While most fire departments have professionalized their hiring practices and are careful to avoid unfair treatment of any applicant group, illegal discrimination does still crop up in hiring processes from time to time. If you believe you have been treated unfairly based on your race, gender or religion (or, in some cities and states, your sexual orientation), you may wish to pursue the matter through legal channels.