The Boston Fire Department was rightly called out for its puny number of female firefighters and the “locker room” culture that permeates the organization.
Solving that problem requires more than good intentions and a cadet program designed to recruit women. But Boston’s not alone in facing it. About 96 percent of all US firefighters are men. The firefighting business is changing, but the idea of what it takes to be a firefighter is not. And that makes diversity elusive.
Just ask Kara Kalkbrenner. In 2014, she became the first female chief of the Phoenix, Ariz., fire department. She knows women can do the job, because she has done it for 34 years. Yet of 1,675 Phoenix firefighters, just 77 — or 4.5 percent — are female. That’s slightly better than the national average and much better than Boston, where 16 female firefighters account for 1 percent of a 1,500-member fire department. But even with a woman in charge, increasing the number of female firefighters isn’t easy. For one thing, fewer men and women are applying for the job. “Millennials don’t want to be in public safety,” said Kalkbrenner. Then, there’s the physical fitness conundrum. “If you’re 4 foot 11 inches and 90 pounds, you’re probably not going to be a successful firefighter,” said Kalkbrenner in an interview.
The stereotypical firefighter is a macho man who can climb a ladder with an 80-pound pack on his back; manage a hose line with 150 pounds of pressure; pull victims from a burning building; and flash his very fine abs in sexy fire-themed calendars. But here’s a hot news flash. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, firefighting tasks involving “brawn and courage” represent only a small subset of the job. “In 2016, only four percent of emergency calls to which US fire departments responded were actually fires. The majority (64 percent) were medical emergencies,” writes Corinne Bendersky, a professor of management and organization at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
Many cities see such statistics as a path to new job opportunities for women as fire-based EMTs and paramedics. Phoenix is one of them. However, in that department, emergency medical personnel must also be able to pass the traditional physical fitness test and that limits the pool of available women. In other cities, the fire-based medical emergency staff isn’t part of the “fire suppression” operation, which allows more women into the mix.
“I’d be an advocate for that,” Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn told me. However, he faces the usual political obstacles — not unlike the obstacles to changing civil service restrictions that currently require the department to give job preference to veterans and other groups. Boston Emergency Medical Services comes under the Boston Public Health Commission, one of those quasi-independent agencies that calls its own shots. Switching it to the fire department would not be easy, especially since there’s bad blood between them. Back in 2013, firefighter union leaders failed to convince the city to let firefighters respond to 911 calls. Their effort was seen as encroachment on EMS turf.
It’s a little concerning that Finn seems to see the addition of a fire-based EMS as the only way to transform the department, at least by the numbers. “Until we come out of a single role description, nothing’s going to change,” he said. “The actual fire suppression side is a very dangerous, dirty job, and physically demanding.” In other words, he seems to be saying, it’s a tough job for women. Yet those doing it deserve a safe and supportive environment.
Finn said he’s committed to that. “People should feel comfortable at work. We have to count on each other,” he said. Kalkbrenner, who knows Finn personally, said she believes he can lead the way. But it won’t be easy. “You’re changing a culture that’s entrenched, that’s been around for 300 years,” she said. “You’ve gotta walk the walk. There has to be repercussions. I can’t tell you how many people no longer work for the city of Phoenix because they do stupid [stuff].”
That’s the kind of culture change the Boston fire department needs to embrace.