The US Fire Administration (USFA) has released recommendations that address long-term and emerging health and safety issues faced by female firefighters and EMS responders.
For over 200 years, women have been firefighting in the United States. Stories of individual women serving in the 19th and early 20th centuries eventually grew to all-female volunteer fire companies in the 1910s.
World War II led to an influx of women filling the needs of the volunteer fire service as existing male firefighters left to serve in the war.
After the war, women began getting paid for their firefighting work, but it was not until the mid-1970s that women entered into career fire suppression roles. It was around this time that women began to integrate more into local fire departments and work alongside their male peers. African-American women also became career firefighters in the 1970s.
In 1999, the USFA worked jointly with Women in the Fire Service (WFS) to conduct a study of women firefighters. With just over 25 years of experience in career-level fire suppression positions, the number of women in career roles climbed to over 4,500 nationwide.
The estimate of volunteer and paid-on-call women in the fire service was 10 times higher than those in career roles, and that did not account for emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics.
The study also reported hundreds of women serving in federal and state fire agencies. In 1999, women comprised about 2 percent of career firefighters nationally, although this varied widely with some major departments having no women and others having up to 10 to 15 percent.
The study found that despite more women serving in the fire service in recent years, growth and inclusion of women in the ranks has been extremely slow and lags behind the growth of women in other male-dominated fields.
USFA’s recommendations include:
- Develop an improved data reporting system with more detailed incident and exposure information, including gender;
- National and state organizations must create a mechanism for applicable information to reach those who need it most – the firefighters;
- Develop teamwork training to better support an integrated, diverse workforce; and
- Develop a program to inform health care providers about the work of first responders and their health concerns.
Further research involving larger samples of women in the fire service is needed in order to generalize results to women firefighters.