Women in Firefighting
Firefighting has historically been a predominantly male profession throughout the world. But since the 1970s, women have made inroads in both professional and volunteer fire departments in many countries. In modern times, women serve in a variety of fire service roles including as fire chiefs. However, they still comprise less than 20% of firefighters even in the countries where they are best represented.
Many ancient civilizations had a form of organized firefighting. One of the earliest recorded fire services was in Ancient Rome. On the opposite side of the globe, Aboriginal Australians managed and responded to wildfires for thousands of years, with women being involved.
Firefighting became more organized from the 18th century onwards, prompted by the rise of insurance companies and then with the rise of government fire services in the 19th century.Young women in boarding houses in the United Kingdom were taught fire drills, including high ladder rescues. During World War II, women served in the wartime fire services of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, though mostly in administrative and support roles.
As a result of the second-wave feminism movement and equal employment opportunity legislation, official obstacles to women were removed from the 1970s onwards. The first female firefighter in the United Kingdom was recruited in 1976, while the first in New Zealand joined in 1981. Many fire departments required recruits to pass tough fitness tests, which became an unofficial barrier to women joining. This led to court cases in a number of countries. In 1982, Brenda Berkman won a lawsuit against the New York City Fire Department over its restrictive fitness test. She and 40 other women then joined as its first female firefighters. A similar lawsuit led to the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 1999 that fire departments could not use restrictive fitness tests unless they could justify the need for them.
Nevertheless, the percentage of women serving in the fire services is still low. In the UK, women make up 5% of firefighters which is considerably less than the percentage of female police officers (29%), paramedics (38%) and military personnel (10%).
Women Firefighters in the United States
The first known female firefighter in the United States was in 1818. She was an African American slave from New York, named Molly Williams, who was said to be "as good a fire laddie as many of the boys." In the 1820s, Marina Betts was a volunteer firefighter in Pittsburgh, and in 1863, Lillie Hitchcock was made an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5; in San Francisco.
The first paid fire company was formed in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1853, but it was all male. Women remained as strictly volunteer companies, as evidenced by the women's volunteer fire companies in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Los Angeles, California in the 1910’s.
During World War I, many women entered the workforce to replace the men who were fighting overseas. This resulted in thousands of women working in traditionally male-dominated professions. For example, the military had hired approximately eleven thousand women by 1918 for clerical work.
As part of this change, Emma Vernell became the first official female firefighter in New Jersey in 1936 after her husband died in the line of duty.
During World War II, some women served as firefighters in the United States replacing male firefighters who joined the military. During part of the war, two fire departments in Illinois were all-female. At the end of the war in 1942, the first all-female forest firefighting crew in California was created.
In the 1960s, there were all-female fire companies in Kings County, California, and Woodbine, Texas. During the summer of 1971, an all-female Bureau of Land Management (BLM) firefighting crew fought fires in the wilds of Alaska while all-female United States Forest Service firefighting crews fought fires in 1971 and 1972 in Montana.
Ruth E. Capello was the first known female fire chief in the United States. She was born in 1922 and became fire chief of the Butte Falls (Oregon) Fire Department in 1973. She died at the age of 70 in 1992.
After over one hundred years of paid professional fire service in the U.S; Sandra Forcier became the first known paid female firefighter (excluding forest firefighting). She began working in North Carolina in 1973 for Winston-Salem Fire Department as a Public Safety Officer, a combination of police officer and firefighter. The first woman to work solely as a paid firefighter (excluding forest firefighting) was Judith Livers, hired by the Arlington County, Virginia fire department in 1974.
Brenda Berkman took legal action against the New York City Fire Department in 1982 for discriminatory physical testing. Winning the case opened the doors for women to join the NYFD. About forty women, including Berkman, became the first paid female firefighters in the history of New York City. Berkman subsequently went on to found the United Women Firefighters organization and she became the first openly gay person to be a paid firefighter.
Chief Rosemary Bliss was the first female to head a career fire department in Tiburon, California. She became fire chief in 1993. As of 2002, approximately 2% of all firefighters in the United States were female.
In 2005, Sarinya Srisakul was the first Asian-American woman to be hired by the NYFD.
In 2013, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to make sure that 5% of the Los Angeles Fire Department's firefighters were women by 2020. As of 2018, the LAFD was made up of 3.1% women.
In 2015, the New York City Fire Department had 58 women, representing less than 0.5% of the 10,000 active operational firefighters. Regina Wilson became the first woman president of the Vulcan Society (African-American Firefighters Association).
As of 2016, 7% of firefighters in the United States were females.
Somewhat recently, on September 26, 2018, an all-women staffed FDNY engine company served the City of New York for the first time in the department’s 153-year history. The crew was detailed to Engine 503 on 51st Street and worked as part of ramped up efforts to protect the dignitaries of the United Nations General Assembly on its last day in session.
This history-making all-women crew was staffed by Lieutenant Tracy Lewis, Firefighter Martha Brekke, Firefighter Eniola Brown, Firefighter Vanessa Schoening, Firefighter Sarinya Srisakul, and Firefighter Regina Wilson and comes on the heels of an overall increase of women firefighters in the FDNY.
Since 2013, after a 4.5 year hiring freeze, 46 new women firefighters have been hired, which more than doubled the total number of women on the force to 72. This is the highest number of women ever serving as firefighters and fire officers in the FDNY, and the record keeps getting broken with each new fire academy class.