Anti-discrimination and harassment
Fire service policies should guard against discrimination in every aspect of hiring, training, promotions, and more. They should specify that every member of the department should be treated equally, regardless of gender.
Fire departments should also make sure that policies strictly prohibit discrimination and harassment.
FEMA’s handbook for managers in the fire service advises leaders to take a “zero tolerance” to inappropriate workplace behavior. The handbook includes some steps managers can take to prevent and deal with harassment:
- Create a clear, step-by-step procedure for filing complaints, and include a list of individuals and agencies where employees can bring complaints.
- Regularly train all personnel on interpersonal issues, including sexual harassment.
- Keep complaints confidential, and protect the victim and witnesses from retaliation.
- Quickly investigate complaints and, when necessary, discipline the harasser.
Responding effectively and quickly to claims of harassment will show that the department respects and values all employees. Effective anti-harassment policies will create a safer environment for all.
All firefighters have to meet certain standards of knowledge and physical capability. But fire departments need to make sure the expectations and standards are reasonable and not discriminatory.
Some female firefighters may be smaller than their male co-workers, but they’re often still capable of the same tasks.
Women in the fire service have pushed back against using brute force to accomplish tasks. Instead, they emphasize proper technique and teamwork.
“I think where we [women] benefit too is with technique because other things can be a struggle,” said one participant in a study on women in the fire service.
“We use better technique, and a lot of guys get hurt because they just try to muscle it or god forbid that they ask somebody for help …. So a lot of guys will just muscle things that really would be more efficient as a two-person job.”
The FEMA handbook says firefighter policies and training should leave room for various methods instead of enforcing one way of doing a task.
Firefighters should be encouraged to perform a task in the way that is most efficient for them and gets the job done safely. Physical techniques for smaller, shorter firefighters should be incorporated wherever possible into physical skills and evolutions.
Different techniques should be demonstrated equally, without implying that one method is somehow inferior or should be used only if the recruit is having trouble with the “normal” or “regular” method.
The handbook includes other helpful advice for how to fairly and effectively train women in the fire service.
Equality in promotions
Fire service policies should clearly lay out the guidelines for promotions. Promotional opportunities should be based on who is qualified and right for the job, not who is most popular or well connected within the department.
Policies should ensure a fair process that is equal for all.
As the FEMA handbook points out:
Fire chiefs have a vested interest in making sure their promotional processes are as inclusive as possible. Only the most inclusive, competitive tests can produce the best candidates. Women must be encouraged to participate in these processes, and must feel assured that promotion will bring opportunity and the potential for increased professional fulfillment, not a renewal of old problems with acceptance.
Pregnancy and childcare
Women in the fire service can feel wary that getting pregnant could result in them losing their job or status in the department. In order for women to truly feel welcome in the fire service, policies must address the needs of both men and women.
The FEMA handbook advises fire departments to address three different things in this area:
- Reducing reproductive risk for the pregnant employee, the breastfeeding employee, and the male or female employee attempting to conceive a child.
- Providing adequate leave for the woman during the time she is disabled as a result of childbirth.
- Providing adequate leave for new parents surrounding the birth or adoption of a child.
Hair and grooming standards
Fire departments have traditionally required firefighters to keep their hair short. Exposed hair can be a hazard on the fireground, and short hair is usually considered more professional for men.
However, various court cases have prohibited departments from requiring employees to conform to a certain hair length.
When creating policies for grooming standards, fire departments should be careful to use language that is equal for both genders. Only providing male grooming standards paints a picture that women are not welcome in the department.
FEMA encourages fire agencies to consider the specific needs of their department, and create policies that focus on safety rather than appearance. Their handbook includes some examples of grooming policies from different departments.
Women in the fire service can be a tremendous asset to any department. With the number of women firefighters still so low, departments should actively look to recruit and retain women. One of the ways to do this is to make sure department policy speaks to the needs of female firefighters and fosters an inclusive environment.