Who would be so bold as to tell me that within my first few years of being a firefighter? He basically told me a different version of, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” I fought it at first. I didn’t want to believe that such a hard negative existed. However, the more time I spent observing the men and women of the fire service, the more I understood. My lieutenant was absolutely correct. Equality in the fire service is something that will be difficult to achieve by women so long as we separate ourselves from the men. The more gender driven we remain, the more we set ourselves apart from out male counterparts. We can’t demand equality then expect the respect. Obtaining equality and respect is hard work. It’s not something you can just ask for. As a female firefighter, I am all for equality. However, I am against the chest beating, “I am woman, hear me roar,” kind of equality. I am all for empowering women but not at the expense of putting down other men or making them scared to even be in the same station with us.
Eight years ago, I very less-than-eloquently stumbled into the fire service. I went to Florida State Fire College in Ocala, which was, in my opinion, the very best fire academy in the state. I was the only female in my class. It wasn’t even in the academy where I met my first bit of resistance to women in the fire service (I’ll touch on that in a bit). I was the weakest and the slowest in my class. The only thing I had going for me was that I studied hard and I didn’t have an ounce of quit in me. To turn away from fire academy as a failure was not an option. To say I struggled was an understatement. I was not nearly as physically capable then as I am today. I could hardly uncouple a 1¾-inch hose coupling by myself without pressing my knee to the coupling. One day, under a high-stress training scenario, I had a hard time trying to uncouple a 2½-inch coupling from a standpipe after it had been charged. I had no tools with me, and I wasn’t allowed to go get any to help myself. A classmate stepped in to help me uncouple the hose and the instructor directly behind me yelled, “A man won’t always be there to do your job for you.” I was furious. I fumed for weeks. I imagined several scenarios in which he would take an “accidental” tumble down a flight of stairs. I let this anger fuel me for the next few weeks. This was not the first incident, nor would it be the last.
After I made the decision to go to the fire academy, my boyfriend at the time told me, “Being a firefighter is hard. My brother has been trying for years and he can’t do it. If he can’t do it…” I’ll let you fill in the rest. Still, I pressed on. You can call it determination, or stubbornness, or just the will to prove him and eventually everyone else wrong. During my last few weeks of the academy, an instructor came up to me during a night drill and told me to continue on the path I was on. He told me I would be a great firefighter one day if I just kept at it like I had been. There were very few people who were nonfamily members who stood by my side during this endeavor, and I will never forget them. They became the reason I began pushing myself to get stronger and fitter so I could keep up with all the men I was going to work with for the next 20 to 30 years.
The next few years of my career, I would learn that quote from my lieutenant. How it would resonate with me and how it would shape my future as a female firefighter. For the most part, I had a seemingly uneventful career. I worked hard, I completed my rookie duties, and at any opportunity I would train with my crew. I would even train on aspects that may not have been part of my job yet, such as running as command during a training scenario or participating in hazmat training before I was hazmat certified. Whether it was fitness or fire related, the training never stopped. Becoming proficient and perfecting my job was my number one priority. Becoming strong enough to be able to help one of my brothers or sisters should they go down in a fire is something I continually strive for. I no longer train for me; I train for them.
It was shortly after joining the fire service that I started noticing hints of a male vs. female aspect. It was never something so blunt but little subtleties here and there–something I thought better to keep my nose out of. I had my opinions, and they were not popular opinions among other women, so keeping my mouth shut was my only option. Head down, eyes forward. I have seen women form women’s groups within the fire service, women’s groups celebrating the women of the fire service. While I support everyone in what they want to do, I feel that this further sets us as women apart from the men. In a profession where we so crave equality, we create groups that set us apart in a clubhouse, “No Boys Allowed” sense. The fire service is the only group we should be forming.
We came into this profession to save lives and protect property. Over the years, we’ve made it more complicated than that by putting a dividing line between male and female genders. When I came into this field, it was about whether you could do the job or not. To some, it still is that way. Unfortunately, I still get a sense from some firefighters who are wary around me when they have no reason to be–a product of the women’s groups, regardless of my participation or not. The question isn’t whether I can do the job or not. The question is, are they going to make a misstep around me that they normally wouldn’t get in trouble for around their male counterparts? Am I going to go running to the other female firefighters the second I am offended by the littlest thing? It seems the era of everyone having thick skin and being able to take a joke is long gone. The more prevalent attitude these days is, “How am I going to have to defend myself today?”
Since graduating the academy, I promised myself I would hold myself to a higher standard than anyone else would hold me to. So, I catch a lot of flak for being “too harsh” on other women. However, that is not the case. I hold myself to a high standard and I expect a lot from myself. Those who see me as “too harsh” are the same people who won’t have a conversation with me. I don’t expect a pat on the back for being a female and doing the same exact job as a man. I believe in equality for all, no special treatment. When Nike ran its #LikeAGirl ad in June 2014, there was backlash not 24 hours later with the emerging of a similar hashtag #LikeABoy. Equality for all. I have read of other departments lowering their standards and allowing people to enter their department based on this lower standard. It’s a concept I disagree with. By holding ourselves to the same standard that we hold the men to, no one can come back and say, “Oh, well, you made it because you had an easier test.” I understand there needs to be a quota of gender and ethnicities in the fire service, but why lower the standard and do a disservice to your community and your already established firefighters? I believe it was a former Navy Seal who was quoted, “Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.”
We preached when we got into this profession that we were “brothers and sisters.” We’ve become less like brothers and sisters and more like bickering spouses. You can say I’m wrong, but I have seen it firsthand. There are still members of the older generation who believe women don’t belong in the fire service. Instead of rising up to fight them, you will make a better impact by holding your head high, training hard, and doing your work. It won’t matter what the naysayers believe if you have the backing of the people around you. However, if you further separate yourselves because of your gender, you will feel like an outcast. It’s easier to make noise than it is to stay silent and prove your work. It won’t take you long; it just takes patience.
I don’t want people to think that I’m anti-women in the fire service. On the contrary, I am all for it. I am all for fighting for women’s locker rooms where we can shower separately (if the station is old and only has male locker rooms). I am all for getting women a space to pump when they come back from maternity leave. If a man is sexually harassing a woman in the workplace, I’m all for backing her up should she want to take it up the chain or take him out back and give him an old-fashioned ass-whooping. These are all issues, but the men I work with are more than accommodating. I have never been in a station where I couldn’t take a shower privately. The guys always left and let me lock the bathroom. I am not a mother, but I have heard plenty of stories of lieutenants giving up their personal bathrooms for new mothers to pump.
While we’re fighting for these things one issue at a time, at the right time, we should be taking care of our brothers. Yes, we want equality, but how many of our brothers are going unnoticed fighting a battle between their own ears while we’re so consumed with our own battles? In 2017, more firefighters died by suicide than line-of-duty deaths. Heart disease still remains the leading killer, and our fitness as a whole can always be better. These are men I will spend a third of my life with. I want them to be comfortable working around me. I don’t want them to believe I am going to turn on them at the tiniest misstep. I want them to believe I have their backs and that I’m going to look out for their well-being rather than trying to battle them. Thirty years is a long time to come into work and work for 24 hours around people who are afraid to be themselves around you.
Larissa Conroy is a firefighter/paramedic for the Orlando (FL) Fire Department and has been in the fire service for eight years. She has an A.S. Degree in Emergency Medical Services; Fire Officer 1 certification; and several specialty certificates including Hazmat Technician, VMR Technician, and Confined Space Technician.