By John Mullin
Two recent events in my life have served to change my perspective of women in the fire service — or more accurately, how we treat women in the fire service.
Two years ago, I applied for a fire-chief position at a large fire department in east Texas. The interview process was extremely thorough. Among the questions asked was, “How would you increase the diversity in this department, especially regarding females?” I answered that my department had been successful in diverse hiring, at its peak being 17% female.
I wish I could change that answer.
Last summer, I attended the Missouri Valley Fire Chiefs conference. As I was walking with three of my colleagues back to the hotel, I spotted a woman leaving the conference headquarters building. She appeared to be heading in the same direction, so we slowed to meet her. We exchanged pleasantries, and asked what she thought of the conference. And then one of us asked her what fire department she worked for. And then one of us asked what position she held — while attending a fire chiefs' conference and sporting five bugles on her name tag. Why was it so hard for us to imagine that she might be a fire chief?
After a long day of meetings, lectures and visiting vendors, I found myself at the hotel bar. I was seated at a small table with three other fire-service members with a range of ages that spanned 30 years (I was the oldest) and experience ranging from six to 37 years (again, I had the longest career). And I was the only man at the table.
Naturally, the conversation turned to the job. These strong, smart, very capable women were sharing adventures of fighting fire, caring for patients, and dealing with new policies and procedures. This led to stories of success and failure at the emergency scene. And then — just like all firefighter storytelling — the conversation turned to personal reflection. They told of the mistreatment they had suffered and the constant scrutiny they had endured from their male counterparts. I responded that — while well-aware of history — I am proud of how far the fire service has come in making women full-fledged members of our organization. Then these women told me that nothing had changed, and backed up the claims with more-current stories.
I was upset that they were attacking my profession. I reminded them that I had welcomed the first female into my fire department, and though we experienced some rough spots, we got through it. Yes, she did bring suit against us — but that isn’t the point. The point is we hired a female and after she left, we hired another. How good is that?
But now I can’t put away the feeling that we are missing something important regarding female firefighters. If we are doing all the right things to welcome women, why are numbers declining? If we are doing a good job in treating female firefighters as true members of our firefighting society, why do I continue to hear tales of women being mistreated? If I accept women in the fire service, why do I think my fire service is being attacked instead of thinking our fire service needs to improve?
Do you remember when we blamed the lack of diversity on the old-timers who had been in the service for so long that there were rumors that they once worked for Ben Franklin himself? We thought that once they retired, women would be accepted. But I still hear of kids just out of recruit academy questioning the value of hiring women.
My experience is that women just want what everyone else in the fire service wants: to be allowed to do their job and make a positive difference in people’s lives.
The job of managing a fire service isn’t easier because women have joined the ranks. But, the fire service is better because women are members. So maybe the best way to improve recruitment and retention of female firefighters is to improve the way we treat them.
How would I improve diversity? I would start by taking advantage of all the different backgrounds, perceptions and talents that our firefighters bring to the job every day. I would ask women what we need to do to improve the fire service. I would start by showing respect and demanding that of all others.
John Mullin is the chief of Littleton (Colo.) Fire Rescue. A 38-year veteran of the fire service, he formerly served as fire chief in The Woodlands, Texas. Mullin is past president of the Missouri Valley Fire Chiefs Association.