Developing Local Networks of Women Firefighters

So you’ve just been to your first WFS conference – or you couldn’t make this one, and really wish you could have been there – but in any case, you’ve got the “networking” bug. It’s great to be able to connect with others who share so many of your experiences in the fire service, so why not do it more often than just once every year or two? Why can’t it be done on a smaller scale, all over the country, all the time?

Those who have created local networks of fire service women know it can be done. Getting a network going takes some initiative, and keeping it running requires time and energy, but the rewards are usually well worth the investment. Local networks of women firefighters, or groups and committees that focus on women firefighters’ issues, provide the close personal communication and direct support that a national organization often can not.

First steps: focus and outreach

It’s pretty much an ironclad guarantee that if you put up notices in the fire stations announcing: “Women firefighters’ organizational meeting, September 4,” you will get very few takers, and the resulting meeting will not be much bigger than the handful of women who thought of calling it in the first place.

It isn’t always necessary, or even advisable, to decide in advance that the goal is to form an official group. Many women will feel that even attending one meeting of a bunch women firefighters is risky – let alone being part of starting something as imposing as an formal organization. They may fear being ostracized by the men they work with, or may be reluctant for other reasons to be seen as part of a faction that has the potential to rock the boat.

Instead, the crucial first step is to get a number of women firefighters together for a clear purpose. If a specific issue of concern has recently arisen – if, for example, the fire department has just switched to a brand of firefighting gloves that doesn’t come in small enough sizes to fit most women – the reason for the meeting, and its focus, will be clear and compelling. Obviously, the firefighters who are going to be affected by this decision need to give input to management about the safety problems it will create, and a meeting can be an effective way to gather that information for representatives to present to the fire chief or send up the chain of command

If no issues are currently pressing, you are free to choose another focus for your meetings; usually a social function works better than a business meeting. These can be as informal as getting together at a restaurant for brunch, or at someone’s home to watch a video about women firefighters, while planned activities such as hikes, barbecues, and softball games can get families and friends involved in the group.

What you’ll find is that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a potluck or a softball game: if you get a bunch of firefighters together, they will end up talking about the job. If you get them together for an enjoyable purpose, they’ll probably have enough fun that they’ll want to do it again. And once that’s happened a few times, you have a network. Even if it remains strictly social at this point, if an issue should come up, those connections are in place and can be drawn upon.

Once your group opts for a more formal network, you should still continue to offer a variety of activities, in order to appeal to different women's interests and help keep involvement high. Hold social gatherings as well as business meetings, and even at your meetings, try always to include a speaker on a topic of interest, or a discussion on a particular area of concern.

Working together on a non-fire-service project can be a good, non-controversial focus for your group. For example, you might get involved in planting a neighborhood garden, "adopting" a section of highway for litter control, delivering food baskets at Christmas, or doing a fundraiser for a local charity. In one city, for several years, the women firefighters and police officers played each other in a football game, with the admission proceeds benefiting a local women’s group. You can also consider fundraisers for the group itself. One local network runs a business selling t-shirts and other clothing silkscreened with firefighter designs, and consistently raise enough money in this way to send their members to fire service conferences.

Two of the most important areas where local networks can be active, and where it can be easiest to find women firefighters who want to commit their time, are in providing additional training for their members, and in helping to recruit and mentor other women into firefighting jobs. The Minnesota Women Firefighters Association, for example, has been very successful in both of these areas; their outstanding mentoring and pre-training program has in large part been adopted by the Minneapolis Fire Department as part of its ongoing recruitment effort. California Women in the Fire Service, while it was in existence, also offered workshops and speakers geared at helping women succeed on the job.

Hosting a speaker or training session is an excellent way to boost involvement in your network while at the same time equipping women firefighters with job skills. Don’t hesitate to contact national-level fire service speakers: find out what their speaking schedule is for the next few months, and see if you can piggyback onto an itinerary they’re already planning. This will save you money on their travel expenses, and their speaker’s fee can usually be covered by charging admission to the event, with a discount for your own members.

Speakers and trainers from outside the fire service can also be very valuable, and the range of possibilities is almost limitless. Popular topics might include women’s leadership styles, gender differences in speaking and listening, and conflict resolution techniques. More intensive work on difficult subjects would be another option: for example, hosting an anti-racism workshop.

Perhaps the most exciting work that has been done by women firefighters’ networks in recent years involves recruiting, mentoring, and training women for firefighting jobs. The Minnesota example mentioned above and Camp Blaze are just two examples; while efforts on this scale require a great deal of coordinated work, the same principle can be applied to a smaller program within the scope of your group.

If local fire departments in your area do not actively recruit women, your task may begin at that level. Through word of mouth, and contact with local volunteer fire departments and community college fire programs, you can develop a list of women who are looking for fire department jobs, and contact them whenever a local department announces a hiring opportunity. Members of your group can provide advice and guidance on all phases of the hiring process, and offer physical training tips or programs (with practice sessions if possible), and coaching on written test-taking skills and interview techniques. You can also offer to provide child care during practice sessions and examinations.

Mentoring, and physical training, should continue while candidates who have made the eligibility list wait to be hired. At the same time, those who didn’t pass the test (particularly the physical abilities test) can be encouraged to identify and work on their weak points so they can be hired next time. The women who do get hired should be mentored throughout the training process and during their first months in the station.

Affiliation vs. autonomy

Once your group has met a few times and has decided to create a more formal structure, one of the first decisions you will have to make is whether to be affiliated with your fire department or union, or to be an independent organization.

In some cases, you may have the option to create a women firefighters' group as an official part of your fire department: for example, a few of the country's largest fire departments sanction so-called "fraternal" groups. More likely, female personnel may be approached by the fire chief and asked to form a group that will advise management on women's issues. These groups are often intended to be temporary entities focused on one specific issue: the development of a new hair-length standard, or on which fire stations most urgently need modifications to suit a mixed workforce.

These single-issue groups, even though meant to be temporary, create the opportunity for their own more permanent existence. Being involved in the networking process often teaches its participants the benefits of being able to meet and discuss their issues. It may be possible to convince the department to maintain the group on an ongoing basis. If not, the seeds will have been sown for the birth an independent group.

What are the pros and cons of having your women's network be a part of your fire department? The advantages for the group lie not only in the direct invitation to have an impact on departmental policy, but also in the support the department can give. It may provide space for meetings and permit on-duty women to attend. It may offer logistical support, such as secretarial assistance, office supplies and access to copiers and computers. The department's backing may also convince some women to become involved who would otherwise view a local network as too radical.

On the negative side, becoming an official part of the department can restrict your group's activities and independence. It may also create friction with the union, particularly if union members begin to think that the women are attempting to negotiate separately with management on job benefits or working conditions. Both of these risks should be considered very seriously, particularly in departments where labor-management relations are poor. It's unwise to fall victim to "divide and conquer" tactics, no matter how attractive management's offer may be.

If organizing within the fire agency is not an option, or not desirable, your union may also be interested in developing a women's committee. These committees can help channel the input of women members to the union's leadership, improve support for members who file sexual harassment grievances, and offer education and training for the women and the entire local. The advantages to the group are similar to those the department has to offer: credibility, logistical support, and the chance to have input into policy decisions. On the negative side, becoming a committee of your union local will also limit your group in some ways: for example, the union may wish to decide who chairs the committee. Again, it is important to weigh the pros and cons carefully.

If your group is affiliated with your fire department or your union local, this will almost certainly mean you will not be able to include women who belong to other fire departments, or who are not union members. If the participation of these women is important, that may be sufficient reason for your group to remain independent.

Union locals and fire departments sometimes get input on women's issues through human relations committees or a diversity advisory board. These are mixed groups (male/female) of department members or employees; the groups provide input, program recommendations, and other guidance on the entire spectrum of workforce diversity. Don’t be discouraged from starting a local network of women firefighters just because your union or department also has one of these bodies: you don’t have to choose between one or the other. Someone with boundless time and energy might choose to participate in the human relations committee of her local, the diversity task force of her department, and a local women firefighters' network.

Scope and membership

If your group is going to be independent, you will have to decide if women from more than one fire agency will be included. This decision will usually grow logically from the agreed-upon purpose of the group. If the network is aimed at changing the policies of one fire department, or at helping the women from one department work better together, then your group's membership logically will come only from that department. If, on the other hand, your aim is to provide the chance for women firefighters to talk with their peers, hold workshops and social events, and encourage other women who are thinking about becoming firefighters, you should include women from the entire area. Make sure, if you’re developing an area-wide network, that women from more than one city or fire department are involved in the organizational process and the leadership of the group.

Keep in mind that decisions about your group may affect other area women as well. If you live in a city that is surrounded by smaller suburbs, your fire department probably has several times as many women firefighters (and firefighters in general) as all of the suburbs combined. If the women from your fire department start a network that is just for them, you are not only excluding the suburban women from your group – you may be ensuring that they will never have a network at all. With the biggest chunk taken out of the middle, both numbers and distances will be working against women on the outlying departments.

When deciding who should be part of your network, try not to buy into the traditional barriers that divide the fire service. The classic career vs. volunteer split is an example that exists almost everywhere. In addition, most fire agencies have a neighboring jurisdiction that plays the role of the "bad guy:" the fire department that routinely turns a room-and-contents apartment fire into a four-unit parking lot, the city that keeps trying to annex its neighbors' revenue-producing territory, the volunteer chief who shows up at fire scenes with alcohol on his breath. Your network can bridge these divides and become stronger in the process.

For women, another temptation is to be divided along "how we were hired / how they were hired" lines: the women in City X (hired off the "regular list") won't have anything to do with the women in City Y, because those women were hired as a result of a court order or a special program. Regardless of how women get on the department, or whether they are career or volunteer (or part-time, or paid-on-call), or how bad their department’s, city’s, or chief's reputation is, women firefighters have a great deal in common, and can all benefit from networking together. Similarly, don't overlook women on military base fire departments, state or federal wildland firefighters, airport firefighters, and women in non-suppression fire department jobs.

You will also have to decide at some point whether to welcome interested men into the group. This is another decision that must be made carefully. Some women feel that local networks should be open to everyone; that leaving men out would be just another example of discrimination. Other women believe that including men in a group of this type defeats the purpose of trying to create one place where women can get together to discuss their issues openly and work out their differences privately. They feel that men who are truly supportive of women firefighters will understand that in a field where women are in such a small minority, a women-only group is a tool that helps women build the skills they need, or simply find the strength to go to work each day when things are bad.

This issue can be extremely divisive; be sure that all of the members of your group have input into the decision. Also realize that, whichever way the decision is made, some women will feel very strongly and may leave the group because of it. One compromise can be to have some types of events (picnics, bicycle trips, certain workshops or lectures) that are open to everyone, and other meetings or support groups that are for women only.

Personal prejudices can sometimes get in the way of a group's inclusiveness and its ability to function smoothly. Make sure everyone who is eligible to become a member of your network feels fully welcome at group meetings and events. This means not only having a zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior, but also insuring a diversity of input at the organizational and leadership levels. If racism or homophobia threaten to divide your group, consider asking for the services of a speaker or facilitator who can help you work through these issues or provide education on cultural diversity. Keep lines of communication open with all potential members, and try to be aware of any problems that make anyone feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in the group.

Money matters

The issue of finances will undoubtedly come up within the first few months of your group's existence. You will have to decide whether to charge dues and, if not, how to get even the small sums of money that you will need for routine expenses, let alone larger amounts for projects or special events. This problem is usually resolved in a succession of different ways as the organization develops. Groups usually rely first on donations from the women involved. Founding members are usually enthusiastic enough about the idea that they will dig into their own pockets in order to get things going. Other costs can be shared or rotated: for example, social events that involve meals can be done as potlucks and held at different women's homes each time.

Later on, most groups set up a dues structure, which means taking on the task of collecting those dues and the headache of deciding what to do if someone doesn't pay. This can be a difficult juncture, because all along you will have been encouraging women to join your network, letting them know about your activities, and making it easy for them to become involved. At some point, however, you may decide there are certain benefits that are for members only – as there should be, to reward those who join – and that these are not available to those who appear to have no interest in membership.

Finally, if the group becomes large enough and permanent enough, you may need more substantial resources. You may seek outside funding from community foundations or local businesses, or you may choose to hold fundraisers of your own. However you choose to raise money, it is important to keep good financial records. This should be one person's specifically designated task right from the first time the group meets. She should keep track of every donation or other income item, and every expense, preferably using accounting software. She should also keep notes of group decisions authorizing expenditures, and keep copies of receipts for all expenses. If your group becomes quite large and takes on projects that involve thousands of dollars, you will need to investigate your reporting requirements under the IRS.

How should the group be structured?

Most groups will need to designate not only a treasurer but also someone who is responsible for calling or e-mailing everyone to remind them of meetings. You will also need someone to keep the minutes, and one or more women who will speak on behalf of the group when dealing with the fire department or the media. You may also want to have a facilitator for each meeting. Officers can be elected to fill these roles, or you may prefer to keep things more informal: this decision, like so many others, will probably flow logically from your group's purpose. Even an informally structured group should have a way to rotate the responsibilities of meeting facilitation and minute-taking, so that no one is burdened with these jobs all of the time.

The advantages of a formalized structure are that it clarifies responsibilities and accountability and helps keep most of the work from falling on one or two people. Having a mission statement or statement of purpose – another part of an organization's formal existence – helps let members and others know what the group is about. A formal structure is also a prerequisite to incorporation and non-profit status, which you will probably need if you are hoping to get funding from local foundations.

Mission statements, bylaws, policies, and other formal documentation should be developed, or not, as the group develops, and as its members choose. It is easy to get overly focused on paperwork and official language – which sometimes deteriorate into political debates – to the detriment of meaningful activities that are the real purpose of the group. When the group decides these documents are necessary, one meeting should be held to generate input, and the drafting then delegated to a committee that will report its work back to the group for approval.

It is perfectly possible for a network to function on a more casual basis, without these formal documents. Many local networks simply consist of a group of women firefighters who have each other on a phone and e-mail list, and who meet occasionally for breakfast, share rides to local training sessions, or room together at conferences. If that is the kind of structure your group wants, the may be no need to burden yourselves with paperwork or formalities. More formal structures can be adopted later if the needs of the group change.

Once the network has grown to the point where it collects dues, operates a website, or functions as a regional voice for women firefighters, it will become important to agree on basic operating policies. You should develop a method of making decisions and resolving conflicts within the group, whether by vote, consensus or some other method. If there will be votes, who gets to vote? If the group will have officers, how will they be chosen? If officers (or others) speak on behalf of the group, who decides what they will say? Who authorizes money to be spent, and who is responsible for seeing that it was spent the way it was supposed to be? These questions should be addressed in advance, in order to avoid problems or friction later.

Keeping the group going

Over time, the women who were the prime movers in getting the network going often find their energy levels decreasing. They may begin to feel that they have done too much of the work for too long, and they are tired, or they want to move on to something else in their life. Often there is no one to take their place, since if there had been someone to share the load, the women probably would not have burned out in the first place.

This frustrating syndrome happens to almost every women's group at some point. It can be a persistent problem fought off with a holding effort, or it can precipitate a crisis and in some cases bring the network to an end. Keep in mind that, even if the group eventually falls apart, it will have still done some good: improving communications and friendships among women firefighters, affecting fire department policies, and creating links that will never entirely be erased. It will always be easier to put the group back together in the future than it would be to create it from scratch: in several cities, women firefighters’ networks are seeing a rebirth after having fallen away for a decade or more.

There are also, however, ways to help stave off the feeling of failure. One is not to be overly optimistic or to have too high expectations of your group in the first place. Not every woman will want to join. Not every woman who does get involved will be able to make the group a priority in her life. Some women will fade in and out of the group; others will be intensely involved for a short time and then drop out. This is all part of the normal life cycle of a network.

To keep membership lively and maintain a personal touch, encourage each woman to bring one other woman to each meeting, preferably someone who hasn't been active with the group before. Hold your meetings and other events on different shift days on a rotating basis, so the women on one shift aren't repeatedly left out. Move the leadership and coordination responsibilities around to all those who might be interested, to reduce burnout, improve each individual's skills and increase the sense of shared responsibility. If you have the resources, producing a website is another way to keep women who don't come to meetings involved in and aware of the group's activities. This can be as simple as a page or two summarizing recent events in the fire department(s) and the network, perhaps with a calendar of upcoming meetings, training opportunities, and social activities.

How WFS can help

WFS is glad to provide its resources to help local networks get organized. If your group will include firefighters from outside your department, WFS can help put you in touch with other fire service women in the area, and will print information about your group in the newsletter or post it on our website, on our “Links” page or on your own separate page. We can also help you contact other women firefighters who have been involved in forming local networks, to give you the benefit of their experience.

We are occasionally asked for two things that we don’t offer. One is permission to use our name (as in “Vermont Women in the Fire Service,” or “Hawaii Women in the Fire Service,”) and the other is to create a local chapter of WFS. In order to guarantee the autonomy of local networks, and not get into issues of financial or political control, we do not have local chapters, and because it is very confusing to have independent groups with our name in their title, we ask that local networks choose another name.

If you plan to incorporate and seek non-profit status, we can offer some guidance to help you through this process, although you will also need the services of a local attorney. We may also be able to give you leads on local foundations that provide grants for women's groups. Please don't hesitate to call on us for this assistance.

Copyright © 2003 Women in the Fire Service, Inc., and may not be reprinted without permission.




© 2006 Women in the Fire Service, Inc.

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