Real Heat: Gender and Race in the Urban Fire Service

Carol Chetkovich

Scholarly works that can hold the interest of a non-academic audience are just about as rare as well-written books about firefighters. In one of the first books to document the experiences of traditionally excluded groups in the fire service, we are fortunate to have both.

In Real Heat, Carol Chetkovich, an assistant professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, explores the issues of gender and race in today's fire service by studying the experiences of 26 firefighter recruits in the Oakland, California, Fire Department in 1991 and 1992.* To do so, she conducted extensive interviews with the recruits, held discussions with incumbent firefighters and officers, visited all the department's stations and responded to emergency scenes over a period of more than a year and a half.

Chetkovich's work focuses on issues critical to the making of a firefighter: what it means to be a firefighter (both to oneself and to the firefighting culture), how recruits prove themselves as firefighters, what the learning process for new recruits in the fire station consists of and how it is conducted, and how recruits become accepted as firefighters. Each of these areas is assessed from the perspectives of sex and race. How do the experiences of a Hispanic male recruit in a new fire station differ from those of an African-American man or a white woman? How are recruits of various backgrounds encouraged to learn new skills, or prevented from doing so? What role is played by skill in the cultural demands of the job: competence in navigating the organizational culture? What other factors enhance or inhibit acceptance for firefighters? And what are the lessons in all of this that can equalize opportunity in fire departments and in the society at large?

Differences of style: aggressiveness and the cost of mistakes

Fire recruits newly assigned to a fire station are put in a dual role. They are there to learn -- many veteran firefighters will readily point out to them that their academy training, however rigorous, counts for nothing -- and at the same time, from Day One, they must demonstrate that they are competent firefighters. Chetkovich explores how these two functions intertwine and sometimes interfere with each other, and how both learning one's job and proving oneself are affected not only by race and gender but by other factors such as prior firefighting experience, family ties to the department, and the type of station assignment the new recruit draws.

One expectation of recruits is that they will demonstrate their interest and competence through aggressive participation in drills and fireground tasks. This is easier for some recruits than others. Those with prior experience in firefighting, for example, often have a higher level of self-confidence about the job, thus allowing them to jump in and perform more readily, and minimizing the harm caused by mistakes

The differential socialization of men and women also affects willingness to demonstrate the desired behavior. Women grow up learning not to jump into something before they know what they are doing, how to do it, or what is expected. This creates a conflict when they are placed in a male culture such as the fire service:

The caution and self-doubt in which many women are trained are exactly wrong for the environment, where one is expected to behave aggressively even before he knows for certain what needs to be done.

As a result, women firefighters are often seen by their male co-workers as unskilled, lacking knowledge, or even incompetent.

It would thus seem that the simple solution is for women to learn to be more aggressive even when they're not sure what they're doing. But, as Chetkovich goes on to point out, and as most women firefighters are acutely aware, the cost of making mistakes is great. No recruit wants to be labeled as having messed up at something or other, and women as outsiders are particularly liable to have their mistakes publicized -- and not always accurately.

Women have excellent reason to be cautious, given the unfriendly spotlight on their performance... Where a male newcomer might shrug or even laugh off a mistake by figuring he'd get it right the next time, many women would justly fear that their coworkers would conclude they were not fit for the job.

What should be learning situations for recruits thus end up being tests and not education. In discussing an incident where one of the female recruits had the nozzle at a fire, wasn't aggressive enough with it, and suffered the humiliation of having it taken away from her, Chetkovich comments:

In this work culture, the process of learning the work often looks very much like the process of proving oneself, a model of apprenticeship that may be common in male-dominated workplaces but is not the only way to learn a task. In a different work culture, Paula's coworker might have coached her in proper technique; instead, he took the nozzle away, and in so doing he also took away an opportunity for her to learn.

In such a context, the only thing one learns from one's mistakes is not to make any more of them. This is hard to do when at the same time one is trying to act more aggressively on uncertain turf.

Going along to get along

An underlying issue throughout the book is whether it is better for new recruits to attempt to fit into the existing workplace culture (for right or wrong), or to try to change it where it should be changed. At bottom, the question is: while non-traditional newcomers will usually be more readily accepted if they "go along to get along," is this strategy successful in the long run? Does it result in a meaningful acceptance in a survivable environment?

Social acceptance on the job is a significant element in overall acceptance as a firefighter. For women, this often means putting up with a sexualized work environment -- nude pin-ups, pornographic videos -- as well as conversations and humor that range from unendingly sophomoric to offensive and hostile. Each woman achieves an accommodation with these behaviors based on her own comfort level, her relationship with her co-workers, her need for their acceptance, and the level of support offered by management to get unacceptable behavior stopped.

Chetkovich asks whether tolerating a sexualized work environment promotes women's acceptance on the job because it shows women are willing to "go along to get along," or whether tolerating minor offenses simply encourages harassment and leads to more severe forms. The uncomfortable reality for most women in the field is that both are partly true: one can gain a measure of social acceptance by being easygoing and conforming to male cultural norms, but for some women, the price of this acceptance is too high, or the level of acceptance too low. Before the 18 months of probation for the recruit class were over, one of the seven women in this study had quit the job, and only two said they were really enjoying themselves at work.

Hazing: the deal's off

Hazing -- a pattern of practical jokes, dismissiveness, subordination, and derogatory and abusive treatment towards new recruits -- is an ordeal most new fire recruits face, particularly in traditional, urban departments. When the new recruit is a woman and the veterans are all men, gender becomes a factor, sometimes with confusing results. Some particular hazing rituals become obviously inappropriate in a mixed-sex context, such as those involving nudity (removing the recruit's uniform pants and running them up the station flagpole) or sexual behavior (requiring the recruit to shave his/her pubic hair in front of the crew). In other cases, fire departments ban all forms of hazing, sometimes out of concern that an unaware newcomer will believe the behavior is based on her sex (or his or her race), and sometimes in an attempt to professionalize the department or to prevent hazing from being used as an excuse for harassment.

Veteran firefighters, for their part, often justify hazing as a rite of passage and complain that recruits who are shielded from it are being treated differently from others. But this is often insincere. The purpose of hazing is ostensibly to initiate a newcomer into the group: endure this, the old-timers say, and you will be one of us. In practice, women who are subjected to hazing "because everyone else had to go through it" in fact go through it for nothing: they are still denied the group membership that is supposed to be the other half of the bargain.

Chetkovich presents another perspective on the issue: the women recruits she studied were not hazed. Recognizing that hazing was an exchange for eventual group membership, the incumbent male firefighters declined to make the offer:

The many veterans who oppose women in the fire service might harass women to discourage them, but they would not "haze" women (in the ritual sense) to initiate them. Those who might be willing to accept women as coworkers are sometimes reluctant to (haze) for fear of being "taken downtown" (disciplined). The result is that women (are) ineligible to receive the traditional forms of initiation and yet subject to a good deal of alienation and hostility.

Instead, women in the stations were received most often by being ignored. Many women firefighters will surely be able sympathize with these female recruits who would so much have preferred the hazing to the silence, and who longed for the inclusion that teasing and practical jokes would have represented.

Masculinity and the definition of a firefighter

One of the most interesting findings of Chetkovich's work is that sexism functions differently from racism in the fire service. Part of this can be attributed to the long-term presence of significant numbers of African-American men on the job in Oakland: as it is commonly said, "women are now where black men were 20 or 30 years ago." The presence of African-American male firefighters is no longer new, and the fire service has had several decades to work on issues of racism.

But Chetkovich perceives something more than just the effect of time and numbers. She finds, as many fire service women have encountered, a deeply held definition of firefighters as male, and of the job as documenting one's masculinity. While African-Americans and other firefighters of color may be treated unfairly due to the racism of the dominant group or of particular individuals, women are categorically excluded by their gender and resented for it. Being female is simply not acceptable. Racism, however pervasive and destructive, does not permeate the core meaning of the job.

Racial divisions among men have for some time been focused on the allocation question: Who is to receive fire service jobs and promotions? The conflict has been intense and ongoing... Gender divisions, by comparison, have centered more on the fundamental question of identity: Who belongs in the fire service? With women, the issue is not how many positions they should have, but whether they should be present at all.

Chetkovich found in her interviews that "most black men acknowledged that individual people or stations might be racist, but they also felt strongly that this possibility wasn't something that had to stand in their way." For women, on the other hand, as one of the male recruits put it, "'The women know they're not accepted here, by the men – whether they're black, Hispanic, Asian, or white... (I)t would be very, very difficult for a woman to be accepted.'"

This categorical exclusion will ring true for many women who have been shocked by the depths of hostility they have encountered in some male firefighters, or by comments that reveal how male firefighters' sense of their own masculinity can be involved with their work as firefighters and thus threatened by women's presence and competence on the job.

Because this recruit class included only one African-American woman, no in-depth assessment could be done of the effects of racism within gender, which would have provided further insight on this issue. As many African-American women firefighters have found, white women can -- and sometimes do -- use racism as a way to bond with white men in order to gain acceptance on the job. And, as one of the Oakland women told Chetkovich, while she hadn't been fully accepted, "'Being white probably made it a lot easier for me... I think that the black women firefighters have it a lot harder.'"

Relevance beyond the Oakland Fire Department

Chetkovich limited her study to Oakland firefighters in order to gain an in-depth perspective on the issues, rather than the wider but shallower one that would have come from studying firefighters in several different departments. While aware that her perceptions have been "shaped by the location of the study" -- including smaller, less-traditional suburban departments, for example, might have produced very different results -- she accurately concludes that her findings will be applicable to most other large urban departments.

A significant factor in this shaping, as mentioned above, is the strong presence of African-American men on the department. The Oakland Fire Department is 29% black, with consistent representation at all levels of the chain of command. The fire chief is an African-American man. In a department where such percentages and ranks have not been achieved, new black recruits (of either sex, but particularly men) might find less reason to trust the system, and would be less confident of their eventual acceptance and less able to see themselves as firefighters.

While the black male firefighters in Chetkovich's study found greater acceptance on the job than most or all of the women, this would not necessarily be the case in a fire department where black men as a group were less of an established presence, or where white women were on the job before firefighters of color. This is unusual in larger departments, though not unheard of, and relatively common in many smaller departments in mostly-white communities.

Chetkovich does not note or dwell on several other local factors that undoubtedly affected her results, including two distinct aspects of the OFD's history of hiring women. The OFD is 8% female, four times the national average and significantly higher than many large, urban fire departments. Women have served as firefighters for more than twelve years, and some have been promoted to lieutenant. Women also served as instructors for this recruit academy. While other on-the-job contact between female veterans and female recruits in the study appeared to have been minimal (no woman in the study was mentioned as having been assigned to a crew with a senior woman), incumbent women were nonetheless on the job as role models and pioneers. In addition, many of the women in the class knew one or more women on the department and received informal mentoring and support from them off duty.

The presence and numbers of women on the job could be expected to have a positive effect on the success of female recruits. The other side of the coin, however, is that most of the women on the OFD had been hired following a court order that set hiring goals with respect to race and gender. While this was the major factor in increasing the number of women on the job, it also increased backlash and resentment. How strong this resentment would have been in the absence of the court order, and how free veteran white men would have felt to express it, are an open question.

Chetkovich's reliance on the experiences and data from Oakland firefighters thus leads her into a few conclusions whose truth is confined to the Oakland city limits. For example, she suggests: "Without quotas, the urban fire service would in all likelihood continue to be almost entirely white and certainly all male." While this is possibly true in Oakland (although there were women on the OFD before the court order was imposed), it is not the case elsewhere. In 1990, only 16% of women firefighters in the U.S. had been hired as a result of a court order or consent decree, and the numbers have certainly declined since then. (A more compelling argument could be made for the statement in a general sense: that without the hypothetical threat of lawsuits that could lead to hiring goals, most fire departments would not have moved voluntarily to open their doors to women.)

Overall, however, this book is not just about the Oakland Fire Department. Chetkovich has done an admirable job of understanding fire department culture and presenting it in a coherent and compelling way. The experiences she documents and reports are those of all non-traditional firefighters, and the lessons to be learned from these experiences are relevant to fire departments everywhere. The fire service stands to benefit greatly from her work.

*The group studied, which was part of a much larger recruit class, consisted of seven white men, seven white women, six African-American men, two Asian-American men, two Filipino-American men, two Latino men and one African-American woman.

**Six of the seven white men and three of the six Latino men had prior firefighting experience or had a close family member in the Oakland F.D. Only one African-American man, and no women, had a family member on the job, and no women or black men had prior firefighting experience.

Copyright © 1999 Women in the Fire Service, Inc

Cover photo by Laura Oda, Oakland Tribune




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