Women in Fire- Still Plugging Away After 40 Years


Despite the rain, participants in the first female wildfire training program gather outside to take a group photo at a Whiskeytown training camp on Oct. 27. (Tauhid Chappell/The Washington Post)
Despite the rain, participants in the first female wildfire training program gather outside to take a group photo at a Whiskeytown training camp on Oct. 27. (Tauhid Chappell/The Washington Post)

Interesting article here in the Washington Post about women in fire..with video.

“ I know a lot of women who have left fire because they did not feel supported or felt there was no room for them to grow,” Sauerbrey said. “It’s sad for me to see women who have that desire who don’t continue because of the culture. It’s hard to describe the passion people have for this job. There’s no other job I’d rather be in.”

WTREX, or Women-in-Fire Training Exchange, electrified female firefighters when it was announced. Ninety people from the United States and abroad applied for the 10-day training, and fewer than half were accepted for lack of space.

In firefighting, every bit of training is essential. It’s the path to the certifications needed to move up in rank and pay. In fire crews throughout the country, where two women are often the maximum, they are often overlooked by the men who lead them. Many are so intimidated, they don’t ask questions because guys sometimes mock them, so they don’t advance.

“This is a safe space,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a University of California Cooperative Extension adviser who planned the event. “There are no wrong questions. Women feel more comfortable in this environment.”

Thanks to TNC Fire Learning Network and the supporters of women in fire..

As to the numbers, while I was still working I noticed the numbers of women going down and mentioned this to our Civil Rights folks.  The math is that if you are going for Diverse People ethnic/racially and Veterans, the proportions of women interested in fire in those groups are not 1:1  (nor are they 1:1 among non-diverse people). I feel great empathy for people who are hiring with the goal of implementing all of these divergent hiring goals(all of which I support) in the workforce at the same time. Here’s to those facing those hiring challenges and to the women and Employee Relations folks who have to deal with people continuing to do the wrong thing…decade after decade.

6 thoughts on “Women in Fire- Still Plugging Away After 40 Years”

  1. Any thoughts on the future of anything that resembles affirmative action in the Trump era of government employment (reflecting on the Harvard Business Review article we both read about the white male Trump voters)?

    • Well, Jon, I think it’s interesting that 40 years has had a host of D and R administrations and we still have the same problems with sexual harassment..so perhaps there is some kind of structural problem with punishing/getting rid of people who do it. It would be ironic if the administration of the sexual harasser Prez ultimately solved or reduced the problem, but I’ve seen a lot of unexpected and ironic things happen in federal bureaucracies with many layers..

      This election reminds me of when I worked for Congresswoman Carrie Meek D Fl. I joined after the Gingrich revolution, and all the D’s were reacting to smaller offices and staffs. I naively thought that it might be an opportunity to work on things with the majority- ESA tweaks in particular. Since I was Meek’s rep to the Democratic Environmental Caucus, I suggested that to the lead staffer. He told me we couldn’t work with R’s on environmental things because we liked the standoff- that we could decry R’s at anti-endangered species, hopefully get elected next time, and then do what we want to do without them. No listening to concerns, no trying at all to make improvements (a piece of legislation that is perfect, the case law is perfect and is timeless). Now I am not picking on D’s here, but that’s the staff I was on. The key question, I think, is how can we get Congress to work together when a whipped-up base on each side loves ideological purity over compromise.

  2. So at the risk of stepping into the bottomless hole of Political Correctness, this is a sensitive issue that has dire consequences. After 30 years of service in either direct employment or temporary employment in the fire service, both wild land and structural, things aren’t equal, but neither are all men and women. The reality is that there are many more women than men that physically are not capable of the demands of line work. I have personally worked side by side with several women that were more than capable of the rigorous demands of initial attack and they have gone on to be successful in the fire service or have used it as a stepping stone to move into other areas. The problem is that there have been many more women that just couldn’t physically do the job as well as the person next to them. This situation can literally have life or death consequences in this line of work.

    When all things are truly equal and there are two people competing for the same position whether it be a FF2 or CRWB, the one that is most capable is the one receiving the job. In the effort to be diverse this idea of equality for the agency is changed from “best qualified physically and mentally” to mean “do you have the right numbers”. When this happens it is met with resentment either openly, resulting in an EEO complaint or worse, or it is silently delt with in the way of exclusion. Neither result is healthy for the long term and has a negative effect on the women that are the most physically and mentally qualified. When looking at jobs sex, race, religion, etc should be ignored completely when hiring, but when awarding positions and promoting, the same should be ignored and actual performance should be the deciding factor. This is how we get true equality and would have a positive effect long term.

    • Forester 353 argues 1) on average, men are stronger than women, and 2) when two people are competing for the same position, the more capable (i.e., stronger) should get the job.

      If firefighting was weightlifting, Forester 353 might have a point. Men can lift more weight than women. Men can also run faster and jump higher. But, women can run longer; they have more endurance. Which is more important when digging a fire line — being able to lift a 200-pound log or grub line for 10 hours straight?

      According to the U.S. Forest Service, the answer is both, as measured by one physical fitness benchmark — the “pack test” — a benchmark for “muscular strength and aerobic endurance of the firefighter.” The pack test is pass/fail; it’s not graded on a curve or scored. It doesn’t matter whether you do the 3 miles in 45 or 40 minutes. In fact, jogging and running is prohibited, so there’s no incentive to be more fit than needed to pass the test comfortably.

      The pack test refutes Forester 353’s argument that the stronger of two candidates should get the job. If both candidates are sufficiently fit to pass the test, and, thus, qualify as wildland firefighters, a different criterion must be used to decide whom to hire. How about intelligence? Wisdom? Leadership aptitude?

      • Andy S. is right on regarding the pack test. As long as the test is the same for men and women, it is a valid test. Back in the “old days,” the so-called step test — stepping up onto and off of a platform for 5 minutes and comparing the subject’s beginning and ending heart rate — was altered for women (in my observation, perhaps not everywhere): the step was lower for women, and I think they were tested for a shorter period of time. Anyone recall the particulars?

        FWIW, the women I worked with on the line matched the men in endurance — and exceeded some of them.

  3. The statement was made the agency has changed from “most qualified physically and mentally” to do we have the right numbers. I personally have witnessed audits done where the composition of the work force was expected to meet a preconceived mix of sex and race, regardless of who had applied. I also applied for a crew position with the USFS after gaining several years experience on another agencies crews, only to be told they would accept my application but didn’t have any openings for me, the woman in front of me was given an application to fill out and an interview time to bring back the completed application, at which she was hired with no previous experience……. I know because it was a relative. So I think that while it’s true that many woman may be qualified, it often is a numbers game instead of best or most qualified.
    And yes the step test was slanted based on sex and age, but anyone who actually has been on the frontline also knows that the pack test is only a slight test of what you can actually experience in active duty. There is nothing wrong with woman and men competing for the same job, but it’s important that the best person is promoted or hired based on ability and not a quota system.


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