Women in the Fire Service, Inc., celebrates its 23rd anniversary in 2005 with much to be proud of and with confidence to face the challenges of the coming years.
WFS started out in 1982 as hardly an organization at all. It consisted of fewer than 200 women firefighters, scattered throughout the U.S., with an interest in networking. They received a typewritten newsletter once a month, and were listed in a directory that helped them contact each other. They had no by-laws, no structure or governing body, and no official, legal existence to make then a real organization. More importantly, the group had no money, and no idea how long the networking impulse might last. What it did have was the collective energy of dozens of fire service women who knew communicating with each other could provide comfort, support, solutions, and fun.
The story from there has been one of steady growth. WFS' membership has increased almost 600% in the intervening years, and well over a hundred new members now join every year: women from all aspects of the fire service as well as supportive male allies and a growing number of institutions such as fire departments and college fire science programs. But the old roots have not been forgotten: more than fifty of the women who joined in 1982 and 1983 are still members.
The increase in WFS' activities and scope has paralleled the organization's numerical growth. Publishing FireWork and WFS Quarterly is only a small part of WFS' work now. It provides referrals and advocacy for women with problems on the job, offers resources on recruitment, reproductive safety, physical abilities testing, sexual harassment and other issues to fire departments and their personnel, and interacts with other organizations to provide a voice for women in the national levels of the fire service. WFS' biennial conferences are educationally valuable and, at the same time, lots of fun. And its work with the U.S. Fire Administration and other agencies has significantly improved the quality of resources available on fire service women's issues.
What does all of this mean to the individual woman firefighter? It can mean someone to help her if a problem arises. It can mean a few days every two years sharing her successes and her love of the fire service with others who've been there and understand. It can mean a connection with someone on another fire department who can provide useful information for a proposal or a training exercise. It can mean her fire department will receive reliable guidance when it doesn't know how to handle a firefighter pregnancy. It can mean mentorship from a fellow officer or chief when she's promoted. Most simply, it means that she doesn't have to shoulder alone the burden that comes with being a pioneer.
WFS' first 23 years have been exciting and rewarding, and the future is equally full of promise. The organization has an active, involved leadership, widespread name recognition, and a solid financial base. Exciting areas of growth for the near future include the wildland sector, as we attempt to bridge the enduring gap between wildland firefighters and their structural counterparts, and with fire service personnel from other countries, as women firefighters and rescue workers in Canada, Great Britain, Scotland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, Colombia, Panama, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa join the network and participate in WFS' conferences and other events.
Most importantly, WFS still has that one critical element: the collective energy of dozens – now hundreds – of fire service women who know the value of a network such as this one. It is to all of them that the credit for WFS' continued success belongs.
In 1980, Ohio Fire Academy invited an area firefighter, Terese Floren, to teach a two-day class on "Women in the Fire and Rescue Service." In order to assemble background material on which to base the class, she did a survey of women in the U.S. who, like her, were career-level firefighters.
It is likely that fewer than two hundred women worked as career firefighters at the time; no one really knew where they were or how many there were. Floren assembled her list from all available sources and eventually received completed surveys back from sixty women. Shortly thereafter, she was invited to attend two symposia sponsored by the U.S. Fire Administration on the subject of women in the fire service, and to work as statistician on a joint project of the USFA and IAFF that surveyed fire departments on the subject of women firefighters. The contacts made at the two conferences and the information gained working in Washington added significantly to the knowledge and data base that would be the nucleus of the new organization.
In the spring of 1981, Floren was contacted by a Colorado firefighter named Linda Willing, who had recently met a woman firefighter from Missouri who had told her that some sort of women firefighters' network was starting up. Willing was interested in being involved in whatever might be going on. The two decided to produce a directory of fire service women who were interested in getting in touch with each other, and to create a newsletter for women firefighters.
The directory and the first issue of the newsletter were published in the late fall of 1982. The network had its birth right there, with FireWork. WFS did not start out intending to be a "group:" it had no membership cards, dues, or even a well-defined purpose. But within a year, the organization had by-laws and had legally incorporated, and tax-exempt status was granted early in 1984.
WFS held its first national conference in Boulder, Colorado, in 1985, and continues to hold what are now international conferences every two years. Leadership Training Seminars were added for the even-numbered years, beginning in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1994. WFS has become involved in the NFPA standards-making process, presented workshops at conferences of many fire service agencies, provided networking for attorneys handling cases for fire service women, and in general expanded into many areas that its original members could never have envisioned. Most importantly, it continues to provide the support for fire service women everywhere that was the original impetus for the organization and continues to be its primary purpose.
NETWORKING THE WOMEN OF TODAY'S FIREFIGHTING WORLD, AND PROVIDING RESOURCES TO HELP BUILD THE FIRE SERVICE OF THE FUTURE