W. Michael Phibbs
Over the years I have spoken at a number of leadership conferences aimed at emergency services organizations and personnel on branding themselves. It has led to a number of interesting conversations about women in the different branches. The subject of female fire fighters is at the top of my mind at the moment as we reflect on the loss, the suicide, of a female firefighter in VA, as allegations of cyber bullying are surfacing. I have heard countless stories of how both volunteer and career fire fighters, who happen to be female, have been treated, including being faced with the antiquated notion that the women were only there to cook and clean the fire house. However, in my experience, the majority of firefighters, male and female, are exemplary and act professionally around their coworkers.
While women have faced and risen to the challenge of entering the law enforcement field, joining the ranks of fire fighters has been a slower process. Women who have joined the fraternity of police officers worked long and hard to reach the same job responsibilities as their male counterparts. They have paved the way for more women to follow in their footsteps. A number of very capable women now do the same as fire fighters and I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of these pioneers.
In today’s society, we are hyper vigilant, or perhaps hyper sensitive, creating an environment where a single misspoken word or action can destroy a brand that an organization or a person is trying to build or maintain. We have been going through a period of demographic change, starting with Civil Rights in the 60’s through today with efforts to give everyone an equal chance. This means that the volunteers and career officers can be held liable for their liable under Title 7 Discrimination lawsuits or department code of conduct violations. If terminated after a substantiated charge of discrimination they will unlikely find further employment or volunteer opportunities in the field. Public safety organizations are not striving be more inclusive and better represent the demographics of society. This will have significant impact on any agency which is almost entirely comprised of males. A challenge will be how to effectively prevent discrimination need to be discovered and implemented. You can’t find always find simple answers to complex problems; and this one is complex.
Law enforcement faced the challenge of integrating females into the profession many years ago, and in cases continues to struggle with the issue. Female law enforcement officers have the same job responsibilities as their male counterparts, but in many cases, they have had to work harder to blaze a trail for others to follow. Similarly, I have met many Female Fire Officers with outstanding reputations as leaders in their organizations. These women are the new pioneers of today, making the way better for those who will follow.
Firefighting isn’t easy and as such, the training isn’t easy either. Going into a burning building wearing heavy gear or administering medical treatment on a severely injured person is not for the faint of heart. After rigorous and extensive training and testing, when all of the tests are passed, the trainee becomes a “Firefighter”; they are not segregated by race or gender, they are all firefighters. After graduation, the new firefighters get assigned to a station, whereby livings in a station, for 24 hours at stretch, “rookies” integrate into the team. It is the duty of Fire Officer to help new firefighters assimilate.
Unlike law enforcement where officers can avoid officers they don’t like, firefighters are a team and must work together. Fire Officers must ensure their subordinates effectively communicate and cannot allow a simple misunderstanding fester into resentment. Supervisors are held to a higher level of responsibility from organizations and courts. But that comes with the position. Supervisors have a duty to their community, male and female officers, to take swift action to stop what may be construed as discriminatory, harassment, or a hostile work environment. While in quarters Firefighters from time to time they will joke around. But then the question is raised: At what point does a joke or comment cross the line from being funny to harassment? The question is complex, but training and reinforcement on ways to handle workplace issues harassment and discrimination and provide guidance.
It can be tough to stand up to subordinates, who may spend more time together than with their own families. Their job is to lead not just by example, but also by the actions they condone. Leaders who allow problems to fester are in charge of a gaggle, not a team. Lives can be lost when a group intentionally leaves someone out instead of being a team. When effective communication, individual skill development, and team building training are conducted, differences diminish and the entire organization is lifted.
As society and the demographics of the workforce change, more women will enter the fire profession. The days of the male only profession are slowly dwindling. All public safety agencies must recruit and hire a more diverse workforce and we all feel the growing pains. The women who work in the profession today are true pioneers with the grit of the women who walked across the Great Plains in the 19th century. There are creating the path for the future and have earned the right to be called “Professional Firefighter”