By Ali Rothrock, On the Job and Off
For the last decade or so, I have been sharing the story of my early experiences in the fire service. While I’ve enjoyed being an active member of many wonderful firehouses, I wasn’t so lucky at the beginning of my career. Because I share about the adversity I experienced early on, I am frequently asked questions about how we can get more women to join the fire service and how we can get them to stay when they do join.
Another common question I’m asked is how can we address sexual harassment in the fire service? And what does this have to do with the dwindling membership numbers most volunteer firehouses are dealing with?
Let’s take it one at a time. How do we get more women to join the fire service? We show them that the fire service is a place where they are wanted and welcomed. That the fire service is a place interested in their unique skills and ideas. It is a place that wants them as a team member. How do we get women to stay when they do join? By ensuring that their firehouse is a place where they will be given a fair chance to earn their place.
They must be given a fair chance to earn their place that is free of prejudice, stereotypes, targeted roadblocks or purposeful disadvantages. How do we address sexual harassment in the fire service? It comes down to this: either firehouses, volunteer or career, are professional places of business or they are not. Either firehouses, volunteer or career, are places where the highest standards of behavior are upheld or they are places where targeted harassment is dismissed, ignored or even encouraged. Either firehouses, volunteer or career, are places where individual differences are set aside for the good of the common team we are all a part of. Yes, the tone of a station comes from the top down, but we are all responsible for the environment in our stations.
Traditionally, the fire service has been primarily recruiting to and accepting of one type of person. Due to the volunteer firefighter shortage, we need to recruit to and make room for a variety of interested and capable individuals. If you don’t have any women firefighters and want to change that, don’t seek out just one. Being the one and only is too much pressure for one single person to get it right. Find someone who is interested in joining and then have her bring a few friends. All of them probably won’t stay, but the ones who do will have someone to share their unique experience with.
Creating an environment that has room for more than just the type of person the traditional fire service attracts benefits us all. It makes us all better at our craft because we can come at it from more than just one point of view. It makes us better public servants because we have more than one type of life experience to draw from. Our team is strengthened when we have a variety of different team members.
Ali Rothrock is a speaker, author, educator and advocate who has delivered over 500 presentations nationwide. Rothrock has been in the volunteer fire service since 2005, enjoying more than a decade as a firefighter and EMT. She is the CEO and Lead Instructor for On the Job and Off, an online platform dedicated to building more resilient first responders.