Women in the Fire Service are underrepresented, but Girl Power is fighting strong

Date Published : April 24th, 2019    Published By : admin

A recent survey undertaken by the Chief Fire Officers Association found that less than 2% of the retained fire service comprise of women while there is less than 8% women in the fulltime fire service.

Last month, female firefighters and fire officers from around Ireland gathered in Athlone, Co. Westmeath as part of initial stages in promoting ‘Women in the Fire Service’ and on Tuesday last, 16th April, some of those women met at Central Fire Station in Newbridge, Co. Kildare to launch a promotional campaign to attract more women into the fire service.

‘Women in the Fire Service’ is being steered by Kildare’s Chief Fire Officer Celina Barrett and is supported by each fire authority and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, which oversees fire services in Ireland.

By: Declan Keogh
The network is aimed at supporting current women already in the fire service and it encourage other women to join too. The Chief Fire Officers Association’s (CFOA) survey identified several barriers which may deter women from joining the fire service, which the fire chiefs are working on to prevent. The CFOA will soon commission some research to look at the barriers to preventing women from applying to join the fire service and they will work on any recommendations that come from that research to promote women within the fire service.

There are two entry streams into the fire service, operational level and graduate level and with just under 10% of women in the entire fire service, females are still underrepresented within the service. Chief Fire Officer (CFO)  Celina Barrett said “We have two entry streams into the fire service; we have entry at firefighter level in the operational stream and at Senior Officer level, we recruit graduates at various disciplines. Women are still underrepresented in those disciplines even though the entry is from a graduate system, there should be no additional barriers so we will be looking at that as part of the research as well.”

'Womein in the Fire Service' network at Newbridge Fire Station.
‘Women in the Fire Service’ network at Newbridge Fire Station. Photo: Declan Keogh / Emergency Times

Challenges faced by women in the fire service.

The general perception among the public is that the fire service or fire brigade may not be a job that women can do. One of the simple steps which the ‘Women in the Fire Service’ network is trying to achieve is to make people aware of the title of the role which is ’firefighter’ rather than ‘fireman or firemen’. CFO Barrett said a job in the fire service is a job that is open to anyone in society. “The public perception about female firefighters or officers is not something we are going to harp on about, but it is certainly something that we would make it known to people that it is a job that is open to anyone in society that’s capable of doing the physical work that’s associated with working in that role or who has the graduate entry for qualifications as a senior officer roles”.

In response to a question about endeavours by the Commissioner of London Fire Brigade, Dany Cotton, to have the cartoon character ‘Fireman Sam’ renamed to ‘Firefighter Sam’; the Kildare fire chief said “I think what the Commissioner has done is started a fantastic conversation and highlighted the fact that the title is ‘Firefighter’ and is no longer ‘Fireman’, so whether ‘Fireman Sam’ continues until retirement in his current title or whether he reinvents his role as Firefighter Sam, Dany has certainly raised the profile of women in the fire service which I expect was the whole purpose of the exercise and fair dues for doing so.”

Firefighters are part of a team and once they integrate and deliver into that team, it doesn’t matter what they’re gender is, and that’s the whole message which this network is promoting among the public. Emergency service personnel encounter various degrees of stressful, distressing and critical incidents as part of their working lives, and female personnel in any service are no different from those situations. When a firefighter experiences a critical incident, the whole CISM process is around supporting that firefighter or that team, and their gender doesn’t matter when it comes to that support service.

Women in the fire service - Emergency Times
(Pic: Kildare Chief Fire Officer Celina Barrett and Retained Station Officer Ann Tuohy, Galway with Kildare students at Newbridge Fire Station.)
Photo: Declan Keogh / Emergency Times

‘When you introduce a gender-neutral facility then you serve everyone in the entire community’

Only last week, a new fire station was officially opened in Tuam, Co. Galway and last year, new fire stations were opened in Ferbane, Co. Offaly and Graiguenamanegh, Co. Kilkenny. While these new fire stations are built to accommodate women in the fire service with the provision of shower blocks, female toilets and changing rooms, some older fire stations have been upgraded or refurbished to accommodate women, however, not all fire stations have had those facilities put in place.

Celina Barrett said “Over the years most fire stations around the country have made some accommodations for females in those stations, maybe looking for better facilities but generally in older stations, everyone is looking for better facilities, and when facilities are ‘add-ons, sometimes they may not always the best but in fairness to the Department (Housing, Planning and Local Government) they have supported Capital Projects to add female facilities to stations but as we go forward, I think the gender and wider gender issues, not just for male or female, but we also welcome people into the fire service from the LGBTQ+ community and that’s something we haven’t gotten to grips with so when you introduce a gender neutral facility then you serve everyone in the entire community and although we’re starting with women, it’s the first steps towards a programme for a more divers fire service.

Tomorrow, we will feature Ireland’s only Retained Station Officer Ann Tuohy from Galway Fire Service on ‘Women in the Fire Service’.

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