Building a Gender-Inclusive Workplace

It’s more that just recruitment

Does your department staffing reflect the community in which it serves? (pixabay)

By Amy Hanifan

Many of our communities have a diverse atmosphere. This hasn’t always blended over into the fire service to the same degree. Women account for 7.3% of the fire service, yet there is certainly a more even split in most of our service areas.1 This very number has had fire chiefs and recruiters asking how they can better their organization regarding inclusive practices. Recruitment is just the start to success; a deep dive into the long-term environment is most important. Many of the departments that have had success stories hired women in the 1970s and 1980s and are now seeing the benefit as second-generation women have provided mentorship to those newer hires. 

Women in Fire worked with multiple fire service organizations and the United States Fire Administration to publish “Emerging Health and Safety Issues Among Women in the Fire Service.” This document addresses health status and recommendations as well as provides resources and guidelines for those who are looking to improve their organization. Throughout the creation of the document, it was clear that more data needed to be collected and reported. Even with that, a few researchers and many organizations have put efforts into improving the information collection as it related to women firefighters.


Does your organization represent your community? If local citizens took a walk through the department, would they see a reflection of their neighborhood that they recognize? If potential applicants, women and men, were reviewing the department Web site, would they see a crew lineup that makes them feel as if they would belong? More times than not, women will use this practice to determine whether they may “fit” within the organization. This certainly does not mean that an organization that is predominantly male wouldn’t have a healthy, welcoming atmosphere. Some just may choose not to risk it if they don’t feel that connection of likeness.

The first step in reviewing your department recruitment material should be to take a look at the marketing material. Reflect on whether there is a fair representation within your organization. The practice can carry over into recruitment activities. Those who staff outreach and recruitment events should have a positive, open mindset. Varied personalities, backgrounds, cultures, and skillsets help the department to have a well-rounded work force. This is a concept that recruiters should embrace.

Outside-the-box recruitment tools to consider include the following:

•             Civilian Firefighter Workshop (1-2 days of education and hands-on work, to give perspective).

•             CPAT/physical agility practice sessions.

•             Youth camps.

•             Interaction in school sports or club activities.

Recruitment activities often double as community outreach opportunities. The civilian firefighter academy is a perfect opportunity for potential applicants to clearly understand what they are signing up for. Additionally, your local constituents may gain an awareness of what daily duties emergency responders perform. Hosting practice sessions for the assessment physical agility gives applicants the opportunity to be as ready as possible for the test. It also allows them to interact with department members.

The greatest recruitment tool doesn’t pay off immediately, but it plants the seed. Youth fire camps have been found to plant the seed of confidence and desire to join the fire service. School career fairs and presentations are other ways of reaching youth. Many organizations have a cadet program, which allows high school-age students to begin to understand the basics of fireground operations and fire behavior. Recruitment activities are significantly valuable when done well and planned intentionally.

Creating an atmosphere of retention

The very act of retention is a greater feat than recruitment. Evaluating and reevaluating the system are crucial, as is implementing best practices for the workplace. Much of a department’s success in retaining members relies on the culture. Negative attitudes and poor behavior cause toxic environments. Lack of accountability regarding bad behavior tends to intensify the culture issues. Implementing a code of conduct sets the foundational expectation of how department members will interact with each other. Outlining expectations of officers within the code of conduct gives another layer of the importance of accountability with conduct. Any code of conduct should be reviewed and acknowledged by all members on a reoccurring basis. Human resource trainings regarding workplace behavior, harassment, diversity, and discrimination should occur regularly. With the hours of fire and EMS training requirements, HR trainings tend to fall by the wayside, occurring on a less regular basis. Given the potential for personnel issues to arise, these trainings must be given priority.

Allowing promotional opportunities for women in the fire service is crucial. Women often wait to try for the promotion till they are solid in knowing they are ready for the next step. As more women promote, taking on company officer and chief level roles, others will begin to see themselves as future leaders. Women in leadership allow for another option of a mentor for younger tenured firefighters. This gives another variation of perspective within the department leadership.

Fostering an inclusive workplace can include a review of station design. Traditionally, in the foundational years of the fire service, it was a male-dominated field. This meant that facility design was not at the top of mind regarding the needs of women firefighters. Many longstanding departments still operate out of older stations, which may not have been set up well for addressing women’s locker rooms or individual bunk rooms. As remodel and new station design planning occurs, organization leaders must consider the needs of current and future department members. Progressive organizations have created a space for post-partum women to express milk. A bathroom is not typically considered the best space for this, depending on separation of facilities (i.e., not having a toilet in the same room). Including a refrigerator, kept separate from the general-use fridge, would be helpful as well. Normalizing these practices is healthy for the department and its members.

Policy implementation should address pregnancy, maternity leave, and return to work/milk expression. This is becoming more common, though many departments still lack one or more of these policies. Best-case scenario would be that these policies are in place prior to the event in which they need to be referenced and enacted. A review should be done with legal and human resources for best practices, which line up with state and federal law. Not all employees need to draw from these policies, women or men, though having them in place will show that the department cares about its members enough to provide a safe, proactive workplace. There are stories of women who bring policy recommendations forward to their department leadership. This can still have a positive end when parties work together to ensure the best product is put in place. It can also leave the women needing the policy in a tough place. A proactive approach is in the best interest of the organization.

Uniforms and personal protective equipment (PPE) must be sized appropriately for any firefighter. Some vendors have started offering a women’s cut or custom-sized turnout gear. For years, this issue has been toward the top of the list for women firefighters. Bulky shoulders, oversized gloves, and a poorly designed bunker pant (which tends to be loose in areas) have been contributors to difficulty in performing fireground skills adequately. There have been some improvements, but there is room for growth. The best approach to proper-fitting gear would be custom sizing for all personnel.

Planning for the Future

The past 10 to 15 years have brought greater attention to health and wellness within the fire service. Cancer, cardiac health, behavioral health, injuries, and fatalities are being closely reviewed and talked about. Conferences now offer multiple sessions on a variety of health-related topics. Increased awareness surrounding firefighter health has shown where resources are needed and where data are lacking. The surface has barely been scratched on health impacts to women firefighters.

Cancer initiatives and incidences have caused organizations to address decon and station design differently. Multiple turnout sets, gross wash down stations, and wipes being used prior to rehab are just a few best practices that have been put into place. Several studies have reviewed cancer among the fire service, though very few specify gender as a variable. The few that have addressed the topic have stated results such as cervical cancer being four times higher and thyroid cancer showing at nearly three times higher in women firefighters.2 These studies have also shown to have wide confidence intervals, which causes an inability to draw significant conclusions. There is still work to be done in gathering information. Efforts by those such as the Women’s Biomonitoring Collaborative are attempting to bridge the data gap by performing the needed research.

Cardiac health was found to be the second leading cause of deaths in women firefighters, with the leading cause being traumatic events.3 Overall cardiac health is a great concern for emergency responders. Providing a heart healthy program is in the best interest of all department personnel. The National Volunteer Fire Council has a solid program in place and contributed to the USFA document. This resource will walk an organization through creation of a heart healthy program, keeping in mind the importance of physical activity and nutrition. Any firefighter would benefit from having a program in place that encourages healthy practices.

Behavioral health of responders has been given more attention in the past five years than ever before. Risk of developing mental health issues is higher for firefighters in general.4 The impacts of discrimination have been found to significantly increase the development of mental health issues among women firefighters.4 Addressing culture issues, accountability, and setting expectations have all been mentioned as immediate needs to assist with this concern. Peer support teams have shown to be successful in some organizations. Mental health professionals should be heavily involved in the creation and oversight of these programs. Peer support team members will need to complete proper training prior to their assignment as well as ongoing training. Addressing behavioral health must be at the top of the department leadership’s priority list.

It would be difficult for most organizations to attempt more than one or two of these recommendations at the same time. Review your organization, communicate with members, consult human resources, and set a plan in place. It could be as easy as creating a recruitment committee with a couple of open-minded, driven people. Many of the recommended practices will create a better workplace for everyone. Our communities deserve a professional service that greatly reflects on the citizens.


1.            Haynes, H. J., & Stein, G. P. (2017). U.S. fire department profile — 2015. Quincy, MA: National Fire Protection Association. Retrieved from https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/ Data-research-and-tools/Emergency-Responders/US-fire-department-profile.

2.            Ma, F., Fleming, L. E., Lee, D. J., Trapido, E., Gerace, T. A., Lai, H., & Lai, S. (2005). Mortality in Florida professional firefighters, 1972 to 1999. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 47(6), 509-17.

3.            NFFF, & IWomen. (2017). Female Firefighter Fatalities in the United States, 1994-2015.

4.            Jahnke, S. A., Poston, C. W., Haddock, C. K., Jitnarin, N., Hyder, M. L., & Horvath, C. (2012). The health of women in the US fire service. BioMed Central Women’s Health, 12:39. doi:10.1186/1472-6874-12-39

Amy Hanifan is the operations chief of the McMinnville (OR) Fire Department and has been in the fire service since 2001. As of January 2020, she is the incoming president for Women in Fire, where she has served on the board since 2013. She has been greatly involved with health, safety, and inclusion initiatives and was the project lead for the recently released USFA document, “Emerging Health and Safety Issues among Women in the Fire Service.”