Recruiting Women as Structural Firefighters, Part I: Before the Recruitment Drive Begins

When fire chiefs talk about firefighter recruitment, they usually mean the effort that is spent, shortly before an application period opens, to get candidates to apply for job openings. Recruitment is the way a fire department attracts new members. Fire chiefs who wish to diversify their department's workforce or attract specific groups of people (college graduates, licensed paramedics) have learned to target those groups in the recruiting effort. This article outlines the basic elements of targeted recruitment programs and presents some insights from programs already in place.

But a productive recruitment drive is just part of what it takes to increase the number of women on a fire department. For recruitment to be really effective, managers must establish a positive climate within the department before encouraging women to become firefighters. Fire departments must also begin to recognize, and take advantage of, the recruitment impact of most of their public activities. Expanding the concept of recruitment in these two directions will make the recruitment drive itself more productive and will increase the likelihood that the women who are recruited will actually become firefighters.

The skills and dedication of the people working in the recruitment unit, the creativity that goes into designing the program, and the verbal, logistical and financial backing given to the effort by top management, all play important parts in the success of your department's recruitment drive. All of this effort and investment must be supported. Your recruiters' message will be that your fire department wants women to become firefighters. But if other aspects of your department give out a conflicting message, or if the department is unprepared for a workforce that includes men and women, much of your recruitment effort will go for nothing.

A recruitment effort has not necessarily succeeded just because dozens or even hundreds of women fill out applications and show up to take the test. All too often, recruiters and administrators focus only on sheer numbers of women candidates. Giving greater consideration to what you're really trying to accomplish will show the benefits of a longer-range view. The true measure of the success of a recruitment drive aimed at women is found much farther down the road, in the number of women who are on the job as skilled and productive firefighters two or three years later. This has very little to do with how many women originally showed up to take the test.

Hiring women who will become good firefighters and stay on the job involves efforts outside the recruiter's realm. The out-front recruitment effort is just the tip of the iceberg. Its long-range success rests on work that must be done elsewhere in the department. If your recruiters are to spend their time making it known that your department wants women to work there as firefighters, you as chief must make sure that's really true before they ever begin.

A pre-recruitment checklist

This checklist covers some of the preparatory steps fire department managers can take to make the recruitment of women firefighters more effective, and to help insure the retention of women who join the department.

The application and testing processes

  • Has the testing or other selection process been established in full detail?
  • Will candidates be informed about the components of the process, the contents of the physical test, how the tests will be administered, how each component will be scored, what constitutes a passing score, and how the final ranking on the hiring list will be determined?
  • Has the entry-level physical test (if used) been validated for your department, based on a job analysis conducted by an outside expert? Does the scoring system reflect the test's accuracy in predicting job performance? Has the pass/fail point been set by testing a random sample of firefighters already on the job? Have skill-dependent items on the test been eliminated or minimized?
  • If test practice sessions will be held, are personnel who will staff the sessions familiar with techniques that may be more effective for smaller or shorter candidates? Will a variety of safe and effective techniques for performing the test events be demonstrated to candidates and permitted on the test? Have personnel who will administer the test been instructed as to which techniques will be permitted?
  • If candidates will wear protective gear or other specialized items during the test, are these available in sizes to fit all candidates?
  • For fire departments that do not give an entry-level test, has the application process, including both its formal and informal elements, been reviewed to make sure it doesn't tend to screen out women?

Policy development and review

  • Have an anti-harassment policy and confidential complaint procedure been put in place? Has training been held to educate all personnel about harassment and the department's policy?
  • Are policies in place to protect the reproductive safety of all personnel with hazardous duties? Have employees received information about the reproductive risks of firefighting?
  • Have departmental policies affecting the employment of relatives been reviewed for their impact on married couples, and revised as necessary?
  • Have departmental policies on hair length and personal grooming been revised as needed?

Recruit training

  • Does the training staff have a positive approach towards their job and towards training women? Are they knowledgeable about cultural barriers that may exist for women on the job?
  • Have interested women firefighters or officers been assigned to the training academy as instructors or assistants?
  • Have the training curriculum and methodology been reviewed for their applicability to a diverse group of students? Are instructors prepared to instruct students with a range of learning styles?
  • Will recruits be given a clear understanding of performance criteria? Will skills be taught and recruits be given ample opportunity to practice them before being evaluated?
  • Does the training staff have a clear procedure for evaluating and documenting recruit performance and for dealing constructively with any problems?

Fire station facilities and firefighter protective gear

  • Will properly fitting protective gear be available to all fire recruits from the time it is first needed in training?
  • Are uniforms available in cuts and sizes to fit women?
  • Are all fire stations adequate in their facilities for a workforce that includes both women and men? If not, has a plan or timetable been implemented to bring them up to standard?

What is clear from this list is that most of the issues that arise when a fire department becomes gender-integrated should be considered long before a targeted recruitment of women ever begins. A fire department that has little management commitment to diversity, an unvalidated, speed-to-completion entry-level physical test, hair-length standards based on men's fashions, or a "We'll deal with it when it happens" approach to firefighter pregnancy, shows it truly does not care what happens to any women who might join the department.

People are unlikely to be motivated to enter a workplace in which they are unwelcome. One fire chief put it succinctly: "It was hard to get women to apply for the job, because the men didn't want them there." Women firefighters already on the job may be reluctant to join in a recruitment effort and may even actively discourage other women from applying for the job, since they know the problems women in the department face. It is both practically and ethically difficult to recruit women into such an environment. It is a waste of effort, or worse, to recruit women before the above issues are addressed.

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. It may be accessed free of charge from our site: Info Packets.




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