Political News

Area fire departments try to spark interest with women

Posted November 24

— Before she left the Roanoke Police Department's Animal Control Unit, Caitlin Ward had never considered becoming a firefighter. But about a year later, she found herself with an application.

Ward said she'd often worked alongside city firefighters while with animal control. She knew she wanted to continue working in public safety even after leaving the unit. And seeing the fire department's work and sharing dinner with friends she made at local stations helped her decide what capacity she wanted to serve in.

"I think the more I thought about it, the more I thought it could be something I really like," Ward said. "I knew I didn't want to be an officer. I thought, 'Well, let's try that.'?"

The 24-year-old borrowed a 40-pound weighted vest and started preparing for the Candidate Physical Ability Test, a difficult obstacle course required of all applicants.

This spring, Ward was the only woman to graduate from the 19th Roanoke Valley Regional Fire & EMS Academy. Although another graduation is planned for December, no women are in that class. Ward will remain the only woman out of 46 people to be hired as full-time firefighters in the Roanoke Valley in 2016.

Roanoke County Chief Steven Simon said that although 300 to 400 people take the CPAT each time it's offered — usually once a year — officials see 10 or fewer women during the recruitment process. Roanoke Fire-EMS Chief David Hoback said he recalled only one woman passing the last administered CPAT last spring; by the time she was approached for an interview, she had taken another job.

Recruiting and retaining women to the fire service has been a struggle nationally. In 2014, women accounted for just 7 percent of firefighters nationwide, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Roanoke Valley departments reflect those percentages. Roanoke Fire-EMS employs 11 women full time out of about 235 uniformed staff; two of those women are in officer positions. Roanoke County Fire & Rescue, which has never had a woman in leadership, has four women working full time as firefighter-EMTs out of about 162 full-time workers. Salem Fire & EMS has one woman working as a full-time firefighter-EMT out of 57; she also holds a leadership position in the department as a senior firefighter.

Salem Fire & EMS Chief John Prillaman said recruiting more women is important, not only because some residents might prefer to work with women during a medical emergency or a fire, but also because residents need to be able to see their community reflected in local departments.

"When that fire truck pulls up, I think our citizens are really looking for people that look like them," Prillaman said. "I think there's a comfort factor when you see a male and a female, or two females coming off the truck."

But reaching women who are interested in the job is a challenge, Prillaman said. In the Roanoke Valley, recruiters set up booths at job fairs and reach out to collegiate athletes and at local gyms, hoping to find physically fit, qualified women who are interested in public safety. Officials also hope that developing relationships with high school students through an internship program will boost interest among young women.

"Do we need more females? Absolutely," Hoback said. "But how do we get there?"

In 1997, Roanoke Fire-EMS officials hired the first women to be full-time firefighters in the department. It was a landmark that then-Roanoke Mayor David Bowers had pushed for since 1993, and one that already had been met elsewhere in the Roanoke Valley — both by Salem Fire-EMS, which had two women on its payroll, and by Roanoke County Fire & Rescue, which hired a woman when rescue and fire combined services in 1986.

But the achievement wasn't universally welcomed, either by department employees or by residents.

Marci Stone, Georgette Asbury and Nicole Wade started in August, not long after the department merged the city's fire and EMS services.

Stone, who already had been fighting fires for six years, became a firefighter-EMT at age 16 after volunteering through a high school vocational program in Franklin County.

"I was young and naive, and really had been in the volunteer system and assumed I was going to be accepted with open arms," Stone said. "I learned pretty fast that it was going to be dependent on my performance and how I physically did, on how I was judged."

Residents wrote letters to the editor, complaining that "lowering standards" would put the public at risk and that the women wouldn't be capable of an effective rescue.

"If certain individuals are bent on forcing themselves into anomalous career paths, don't do it at the expense of public safety," read one letter published in August 1997. "Enough already!"

Then-Chief James Grigsby said some men in the department complained that they didn't want Wade, Asbury or Stone working in the department. Some specifically requested the women not be paired with them. "Are they physically strong enough?" he recalled some saying. "They can't carry me out of a burning building."

Stone recalled that many men in the department were most concerned with how bathroom and sleeping accommodations would be handled.

Initially, cards on the bathroom doors indicated whether men or women were using the restrooms, but Stone said women's bathrooms were added to Station 6 shortly after she was hired. Cubicles were also put up between beds to guarantee privacy.

"Sleeping arrangements and bathrooms seemed to be the concern of the men, really. We were there to do our jobs and we were going to try to be one of the guys," Stone said. "As time has gone on that really is something that has become a moot point."

Although most stations have been modified to include sleeping quarters and bathrooms for men and women, Hoback said some stations still need work. Station 8, which does not have women's bathrooms, will be rebuilt in the near future, Hoback said. The department also plans to add women's bathrooms to Station 7.

Dana Lacy, who started fighting fires in high school as a volunteer and today works for Roanoke County Fire & Rescue, said dismissive attitudes from coworkers are rare these days. Gendered assumptions usually come from residents, if at all.

"I've had mothers, people who see me with their kids and they say, 'Look, it's a fireman.' And then they stumble over it. 'Fireman? Firewoman?'" Lacy said. "What's wrong with 'firefighter'?"

Stone said she has noticed a marked cultural change from when she was hired in 1997. When Stone returned to the department in 2014 after spending four years as deputy chief for Bedford County Fire and Rescue, many of the people who had opposed her hire had retired.

"I wouldn't come back to an organization that I didn't feel accepted, that I didn't feel was open to people of different races, nationality, whatever," Stone said. "I came back to this organization because they are my family and I'm connected here. I will tell you, I have people all the time, coming to me happy that I'm back and sharing that information with me."

Though the atmosphere for women who fight fires in the Roanoke Valley has changed, departments still struggle to recruit and retain women. Fran Gonzalez said she has watched many women join up during her 13 years at Roanoke County Fire & Rescue, but their time at the department is often short.

"Women just don't stay," she said. They'll stick around for a couple of years and almost get their EMT-intermediate certification, she said, "and they're gone."

Prillaman, Simon and Hoback said that previous employees — both men and women — have cited a number of reasons for leaving, but one of the most common is the 24-hour shifts required of firefighter-EMTs. That work schedule allows many firefighters to pursue second jobs during their off hours but can make it harder for them to spend time with their families.

"The fire service is the only place where when you leave at 7 in the morning, you're not coming back home until 7 the next morning," Prillaman said. "It can be kind of tough to plan around schedules. You're going to miss birthdays, you're going to miss Christmas."

Stone said the most important part of bringing more women into the fire service is impressing on applicants that they can succeed as long as they're willing to put in effort. Judging a firefighter's abilities on performance and dedication, rather than gender, should be the standard, she said.

"I never understood how I was different," Stone said. "The things I had difficulty with, the men who looked like buff firefighters had difficulty with that, too. We work in teams, and there's a reason we work in teams."

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