Gender Gap: Local Fire Departments Struggle To Find Women Recruits

By Bayne Hughes
The Decatur Daily, Ala.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The U.S Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics says only 3.5 percent of the nation’s firefighters were women in 2017, down from 5.3 percent in 2007.

The Decatur Daily, Ala.

Only two women don their turnout gear in local paid fire departments, a gender gap that’s consistent with national numbers.

Both women, Janice Johnson and Emily Tapscott, work for Decatur Fire & Rescue, while the Athens, Hartselle and Moulton fire departments do not employ any women.

Those who do the hiring said women are simply not applying.

“I don’t know why we’re not getting any female applicants,” Athens Fire Chief Bryan Thornton said.

The U.S Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics says only 3.5 percent of the nation’s firefighters were women in 2017, down from 5.3 percent in 2007.

In contrast, the Decatur Police Department has 10 sworn women officers out of 130 on the force, while Athens Police has one full-time sworn woman officer and three women serving as reserves.

Decatur Fire Chief Tony Grande said firefighting has always been a male-dominated field. He said he hasn’t had more than one or two women apply with his department since he became chief in 2014.

“Perhaps the young ladies don’t think about firefighting as a potential career,” Grande said.

Johnson, who as division chief holds the second-highest rank in Decatur Fire & Rescue, said there are many reasons women don’t apply. After working in a broom factory and as an emergency medical technician with an ambulance service, she became a firefighter 24 years ago.

“It can be a real physical job that’s hot and dirty,” Johnson said. “And some can’t pass the physical and agility test.”

Firefighters in the paid departments are required to pass a state physical test as part of certification. The physical test simulates many of the tasks a firefighter might have to perform, like climbing to extreme heights or carrying a weighted dummy.

Tapscott, a driver/engineer at Station 7, said the physical test could be the biggest obstacle keeping women out of the field.

“The physical fitness test is very difficult to pass — even a lot of men don’t pass it,” Tapscott said.

Tapscott said the test is difficult but more women could pass it if they train hard and they’re determined to pass it. While the job rarely gets as physical as the test, she believes a difficult physical test is necessary.

“The job can be physically, mentally and very emotionally draining,” Tapscott said. “They push you to the limit (on the test) because they don’t want someone who will quit on the crew in the middle of a job.”

Grande said he and the other department officials like to attend job fairs and other events in the secondary schools so they can talk to the students about a career as a firefighter. He said he particularly likes to encourage athletic women who are involved in sports to apply.

“We tell them, ‘You can work for us,’ but some don’t even see us as an option,” Grande said. “There’s an education component that’s required because we have to teach them that this is a job option. They have to know they can do anything they want if they’re fit and they put their mind to it.”

Tapscott and Johnson said the job’s hours — working 24-hour shifts every third day — aren’t always conducive to raising a family, especially when they have to miss their children’s activities.

On Tuesday, Tapscott had to watch her daughter’s volleyball game with Hartselle High over an internet feed.

It makes it even harder for Tapscott that her husband is a battalion chief who works a different shift so they see each other every third day.

With a college degree in restaurant management, Tapscott was managing fast food restaurants when she applied for the job with Decatur Fire & Rescue. A friend challenged her to take the physical test, she said.

“I love the fact that I can help people,” Tapscott said. “I can help somebody when it might be the worst day of their life. That makes the job fulfilling.”

Both women said they haven’t run into any problems with sexism or abuse from their male co-workers, although Johnson said she once had a retired firefighter tell her she should be home “barefoot and pregnant” instead of working in a man’s job.

Tapscott said she feels she’ll get respect from her co-workers as long as she’s able to physically do her part on the job.

Johnson was the first Decatur firefighter to become pregnant while working for the department. She said she continued working until into the eighth month of her pregnancy.

“The chief (Bill Lewis) forgot about me being pregnant until he saw me one night at a fire,” Johnson said. “Then he commanded me to stay near the truck.”

Her son, Jesse, is now 20. He’s a volunteer with the Mud Tavern Volunteer Fire Department.

While the paid departments struggle to find women, many of the area’s volunteer departments have women serving.

Jonas Hobbs, president of the Lawrence County Volunteer Firefighters Association, said many of the women volunteer firefighters are involved because of their families.

Serving in a volunteer department is a tradition for many families in these rural areas. Many of the women serve in a support role during fires, taking care of the firefighters with water, food and blankets when necessary, but Hobbs said there are a few who are right in the action.

“They’re raised up around the fire department,” Hobbs said. “The granddaddy, daddy and brothers all volunteer, so they do, too.”

Volunteer firefighters do not have to pass the state physical test.

Allen Lacy, chief of the Neel Volunteer Fire Department, said most fire departments are having more trouble recruiting new people whether they’re men or women.

“I think the traditional firefighter is coming to a slow end,” Lacy said. “People just aren’t getting into the field. Firefighters don’t make a lot of money, and it can be a very stressful and dangerous job.”

Lacy said he’s had success finding potential firefighters through a Junior Explorer program that gives high school students a taste of the profession.

Few women may apply, but it’s a job Johnson and Tapscott said they love.

“It can be exciting and fun,” Johnson said. “And I love helping people.”

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