Most fire stations in use today were planned and built with a single-gender workforce in mind. Many of these buildings are now being used by a workforce that includes both women and men. Not surprisingly, this can result in inadequacies that are a source of inconvenience, discomfort, embarrassment, and friction for all concerned.
Different fire departments have developed a variety of solutions to the problems created by inadequate facilities. The cheapest and easiest answers are usually the first to be implemented: a "men/women" or "occupied/unoccupied" flip sign on the door of the station's only restroom or shower, or a lock on the door, can be readily installed. Makeshift partitions, such as a row of lockers or a rollaway curtain, can often be put up between beds if bunkroom separation is desired.
These are short-term solutions to real or perceived needs concerning personal privacy in the fire station. The underlying question that guides the development of long-range answers is whether men and women on the job should be provided with separate facilities or not.
The expense to the employer of providing separate restrooms, showers, locker rooms and bunkrooms for women and men usually will not support excluding women from an occupation. (1) According to the EEOC's guidelines,
Some states require that separate restrooms be provided for employees of each sex. An employer will be deemed to have engaged in unlawful employment practice if it refuses to hire or otherwise adversely affects the employment opportunities of applicants or employees in order to avoid the provision of such restrooms for persons of that sex.(2)
An even more emphatic provision occurs in the Guidelines of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance:
The employer's policies and practices must assure appropriate physical facilities to both sexes. The employer may not refuse to hire men or women, or deny men or women a particular job because there are no restroom or associated facilities, unless the employer is able to show that the construction of the facilities would be unreasonable for such reasons as excessive expense or lack of space.(3)
In one case where a firm had refused to hire a woman welder on the grounds that its repair yard lacked locker and restroom facilities for women, the EEOC discovered that the employer had actually had separate facilities during World War II when it had many women workers.(4) Since the existence of male-only facilities is often the result of the past discrimination that Title VII was designed to eliminate, allowing cost as a defense would only honor and perpetuate that discrimination.
One state law that applies to some fire stations is Section 2350 of the California Labor Code. It requires that business establishments that have five or more employees must provide separate bathrooms for each sex, and that no person may use bathrooms designated for the opposite sex. Other states may have comparable provisions in their labor codes or other laws.
Local building or health codes usually require employers to provide bathrooms, and sometimes other facilities, for each gender in the workplace. As most fire stations are the property of municipal or county government, they have generally been made exempt from the provisions of these codes. Where such exemptions do not exist, of course, the fire department would be responsible for compliance.
A few fire departments still assign women only to stations that "have facilities for women." This is not an acceptable long-term solution, particularly where station assignments are on a seniority bid basis and the woman would otherwise be entitled to bid for the off-limits stations. The result can be an unworkable inflexibility for management. It can also generate resentment from male co-workers that the woman doesn't have to take her turn at roving, particularly if her low seniority would normally make this part of her job. And it is unfairly restrictive of the woman, if she is not permitted to make shift exchanges or time trades with firefighters at certain stations.
One fire service observer, commenting on the problem of inadequate station facilities, wrote:
Under the best circumstances, bad facilities are an inconvenience which women suffer from in far greater proportion. Under the worst conditions, poor facilities can lead to problems with morale and job performance, and an increase in the occurrence of harassment. At least one discrimination lawsuit has been filed which was due in part to inadequate facilities. A lawsuit costs a lot more than a locker room, and in the end, no one wins.
When the need for women's facilities in the fire station is neither recognized nor addressed, the... department may be saying that women are not important enough here to deserve decent facilities, that women may not be around long enough to warrant planning for the future, that women are not wanted at this station, and this is a reasonable way to keep them out; or that we are too busy here to consider the real needs of our personnel. All of these are harmful messages, both for women and for the organization of which they are a part.(5)
Two things commonly happen when firefighters in a newly integrated workforce are forced to occupy inadequate facilities. One is that the women are blamed for "causing" the problem. Even though it is the design of the station that is lacking, the feeling among the men is often that since "there wasn't a problem until she got here," it's the woman firefighter's fault. Solutions such as bumping an officer out of his private room to give it to the woman can generate a similar resentment. Where this type of hostility exists, providing facilities that offer privacy for both genders becomes only half of the solution. It is important for management to make it clear that alterations to the facilities are being done not "for the women" but for better privacy for women and men alike.
Another common reaction to inadequate station facilities is the tendency to adapt and accommodate to them. Women and men in the workforce -- and particularly women, if they are in the minority or are the newest firefighters -- will usually adapt to situations that are less than ideal. Many women firefighters do not routinely shower at work, or they get up an extra hour early in the morning in order to shower before the men need the shower facilities. Women have learned to use broom closets as changing rooms; firefighters of both sexes develop the habit of looking for feet under the restroom stall walls. But just because a person or group can develop behaviors to cope with a situation or environment doesn't mean it's right to leave things that way indefinitely. All firefighters deserve basic privacy, either individually or by gender, for personal functions. Management should make it a priority to provide this.
Fire departments should develop a five- or ten-year plan for remodeling their existing firehouses. All new stations and any significant remodeling of existing stations, should include adequate facilities for a two-gender workforce. Most fire stations will stand for a half century or more. To continue to build them on old designs means perpetuating the problems fire station designers fifty years ago created for firefighters today.
Although crews in many fire stations manage to cope with shared facilities, it is preferable for station design to provide privacy for both sexes in restroom, shower, and changing areas. The issue of separate bunkrooms for women and men is more controversial. As mentioned earlier, reassigning an officer's room to a woman firefighter usually creates hard feelings. Tucking an ad hoc "women's bunkroom" off in one corner of the station (such as a rollaway bed in the weight room) is inconvenient for everyone and a clear message that the woman doesn't belong. The most common solution is for women and men to share the one existing bunkroom. Many women firefighters prefer this arrangement, because it keeps them a part of the crew and a part of the information-sharing process that begins as soon as a call comes in. On the other hand, some men and women are not at all comfortable sharing a bunkroom in this fashion.
The real long-term solution to the bunkroom question is to provide privacy for everyone. Many new firehouses are now being built to a design that features cubicles containing a bed, desk, lamp, and three or four lockers (for one person on each shift), with a curtain across the doorway. This provides privacy and a reduction of sound or light from the others in the room. (Snoring may be a common source of humor among firefighters, but routinely being deprived of sleep by one or more snoring co-workers is also a significant source of job-related stress.) If the partitions do not extend all the way to the ceiling, the open space at the top allows for air circulation and allows emergency tones and information to be heard.
This is a solution that pleases everyone and doesn't pit the women against the men, the paramedics against the suppression personnel, or the officers against the firefighters. It also avoids controversies over whether the women's bunkroom in the new station should be the same size as the men's bunkroom, whether men are allowed to use the women's bunkroom if no women are assigned to the station on that shift, whether a station that houses two officers should have men and women officer's bunkrooms, and so forth. It is a solution that respects the privacy and individuality of all firefighters without regard for gender, and for that reason is usually supported by all concerned.
1 As a rule, expense will not support gender as a bona fide occupational qualification unless the expense would be clearly unreasonable. See EEOC Case No. YNY 9-047 (5/21/69), C.C.H. Empl. Prac. Guide 6010.
2 29 C.F.R. §1604.2(b)(5).
3 41 C.F.R. §60-20.3(e)(1970).
4 EEOC Dec. No. 70-558 (2/19/70), C.C.H. Empl. Prac. Guide 6137.
5 Willing, Linda, "Bedrooms and Bathrooms: The Hidden Message," WFS Quarterly, Winter 1988-89, pp. 1-2.
This article is adapted from material developed by WFS under contract to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's U.S. Fire Administration, and published by FEMA/USFA as Many Faces, One Purpose: A Manager's Handbook on Women in Firefighting and Many Women Strong: A Handbook for Women Firefighters. Both may be accessed free of charge from our site: Info Packets.
NETWORKING THE WOMEN OF TODAY'S FIREFIGHTING WORLD, AND PROVIDING RESOURCES TO HELP BUILD THE FIRE SERVICE OF THE FUTURE