SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2012       Personal Memory Ethnographies


Light My Fire:
Rising to the Challenge of Male Domination in the US Fire Service

Hot. Humid. It was August of 2002; Arizona was at its finest, the scorching summer sun beat down relentlessly. I remember how nervous I was, sitting under the bright lights in the clean stark lecture hall at Glendale Community College. The lights shone so bright, all imperfections were rendered for all to see. I wondered how the first female firefighter felt in 1973, had she wondered what I had been thinking that day. I thought I was prepared. I had taken a fitness class, and had gone through all sorts of strenuous exercises and runs that the teacher put us thorough, and even did them again during the summer session. All of us aspiring firefighters were nervous and excited, unsure of what we were going to have to do on that first day.

Like most firefighting classes even in the early 21st century, there were very few women, six of us to be exact, amid 36 males in attendance. The six girls were sporadically seated throughout the room. Some of us, who had been through the fitness class together, were seated next to each other. Family and friends of the students were allowed to be in attendance. They would learn what our goals were for the year, and what expectations they should have. Some individuals had just a few family members present to support them, some had none. The families’ involvement in this orientation process showed us how important family was to the process of our success in this academy class. My entire close family (father, mother, stepmother, grandmother, brothers and sisters) were present during that orientation. My mother, and grandmother had continued to show support through their attendance at every Saturday skills day.

Each student was required to purchase and come to the first day in full uniform. The way in which we were expected to dress was very militaristic. This included dark blue pants ironed so that the crease could be seen down the front leg; black steel toe, red wing boots, polished till they shined brightly; a red shirt, crisply ironed as well, which placed us into the role of red shirt. A red shirt meant that we were the lowest on the totem pole of authority, that we were to be seen, perform exceptionally, and not be heard. On the red shirt, our names were written, as well as the name of the sponsoring fire department that provided us with fire gear. These names allowed the instructors to identify us for reprimand or praise, and if the occurrence requiring a reprimand was great enough our departments would be notified. One individual apparently did not get his uniform in time for this class, I saw him in just jean pants and a t-shirt. The instructors drew attention to him right away, by calling him out in front of the class. This is what I had feared would happen to me.

We patiently waited for our first session to begin. Instructors and evaluators began filing into the classroom, all employed with various fire departments around the Valley. Standing in a row at the front of the room, each instructor had his arms crossed watching us very carefully, critically. This day would make a lasting impression good or bad, and would make or break how they’d chosen to view me and my fellow students. The stance that the instructors, captains, chiefs and firefighters all took was meant to intimidate us, to make us see the hierarchy of authority and to place us into the subordinate position in which we were supposed to be. We sat, nervously waiting for them to begin.

It was the start of another semester of the fire academy. As always, we instructors had caught up outside before going in to greet the students. I had hopes that the semester would turn out some good fine men that would become assets to the fire service. We walked into the classroom and my gaze wandered the room to see all of the expectant faces. I spotted one, two, three, four, five, six girls throughout the males in the room. The six girls were dressed in red as if they believed they belonged where I stood. They had no right to be in the fire service. After all, men are stronger and girls can’t do the same job that we do. I remember a day when we didn’t have to worry about carrying women, covering for them where they fell short. Those were the days. Time for a walk.

One particular Fire Chief, who worked for one of the west side agencies, walked purposefully over bypassing many male students to the first woman that he spotted. Standing in front of her he put his hand up and offered it to the girl.

I extended my hand, as if to greet her.

I was wondering what he was actually doing, but she soon took his hand and shook it.

That grip would never do, she would not get far if she didn’t work on that.

He promptly released her hand and handed her a grip strengthener, “Use it. Your grip is weak,” then he walked away towards the next girl to repeat his routine.

That’s what I am talking about, their strength has never compared to ours.

He continued to do this to all of the female students.

I handed out three more grip strengtheners. I can tell it is going to be a fun semester. I doubted they will even get past the skills course that is planned for them this first day. Finally I got to the last one, a short blonde girl, I highly doubt she could even reach anything on the truck. I took her hand and got a firm, strong handshake in return. Well, at least she has that, doubt she will do well at anything else though, but we’ll see.

I luckily did not get a grip strengthener. Apparently, my hand shake was strong enough for him. I was infuriated by the chief’s display of male domination over women’s strength, appalled that an instructor would be so outwardly expressive in his beliefs that women are inferior to males in this profession. Luckily for me, and my career, not all males in the fire service hold the same opinion, because not all of them set out to purposely show women’s weaknesses.

I was determined to prove the chief wrong, and prove him wrong I did. After further fire classes and testing processes, I was finally hired by a fire department, part time in 2005 and fulltime in 2006, and was able to continue my education and become a paramedic firefighter, also teaching EMT and Paramedic classes. Unfortunately, I still work in a very male dominated career, because women are just not made like men. The thought that women are not as good as males can still be found in the fire service but most of the younger generations of the fire service know that those of us that make it through the training can handle the job.

Women have been fighting for the right to be equal to men since before the 1920’s suffragette’s movement. This has been a constant battle, one that is still being fought today, especially in the Fire Service. Women began having more rights in 1919, when the women’s suffrage act was passed. The following year the women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor began fighting to change the workforce from almost all male to equal parts of both genders. They also fought to safeguard the work places and work that women would be forced to do. Women, who were thought to be lesser than males, were able to work during the world wars to help the soldiers overseas as well as provide for their families; yet women were unable to maintain those same jobs when the men came home. This freedom that women asserted is not something that can be taken away. In early 1963 the Equal Pay Act was signed, with the purpose of equalizing the pay for males and females doing the same job. This still did not stop the wage differential and in 1970 the US court of Appeals decided that women’s pay must be substantially equal but not identical to males in the case Shultz v. Wheaton Glass Co. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act banned discrimination by race or sex for positions of employment. This opened up a wider range of positions that females began to enter.

In 1973 the first woman applied to a professional fire department. This was a huge step in trying to equalize positions for men and women, yet discrimination still occurred. This woman was also the first individual who had been required to take a physical ability test in order to get hired. Since then other acts have been passed in relation to women as part of the work force. This included the pregnancy Discrimination act of 1978, as well as the civil rights acts adding specific testing rules to eliminate discrimination on exams for employment, in 1991. The Fire service was also changing, and developing fitness and performance level standards for both sexes on the job. These struggles for gender equity have helped me gain the position that I have within the fire service.

On that first day, when the chief of a fire department shook my hand to see if he believed I even had a chance at succeeding the class, I woke up. His action showed me that women are still fighting a continuing battle to work in a male dominated profession. According to the 2000 census only 3% of the nations’ career fire fighters are women. This tells me there still is a struggle in store for women.

I took my first day to heart, and promised myself that I would never give the brothers and sisters I have in the department a chance to doubt me, as we all struggle to make our workforce a better place. The society as a whole is changing, and as the “old” sexist feelings are fading out, and younger fire departments are developing in which most individuals now believe that at least certain females are able to handle the job. Let’s face it, it is a tough job, not only physically, but it’s also hard being away from home a third of our lives. But women have proven we can do it, and that is what it going to stick.

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