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Regional Interests

Women firefighters at risk of job-related reproductive complications

A 2019 OPB file photo shows an all-female firefighting training camp hosted by the Gaston Fire District.
A 2019 OPB file photo shows an all-female firefighting training camp hosted by the Gaston Fire District.

Firefighters face intense conditions, but women in the industry not only face fire dangers, they are also at risk for job-related reproductive complications. Little research is available on the subject. Amy Hanifan is operations chief at the McMinnville Fire Department and president of Women in Fire. Stephanie “Steph” Adams is a lieutenant at the Portland Fire Department. They join us to share their experiences in the industry and efforts to make departments inclusive.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to the issue of women in firefighting. According to a recent survey, only 11% of volunteer firefighters in the US and 4% of career firefighters are women. That includes both urban departments and hotshot crews. Over the years, female firefighters have reported issues with discrimination, harassment, and equipment that doesn’t fit. For pregnant firefighters, new research suggests that firefighting can lead to higher rates of miscarriage and preterm births. We’re going to hear about all of this now from two Oregon firefighters. Amy Hanifan is the operations chief with the McMinnville Fire Department and the president of the advocacy group Women in Fire. Steph Adams is a lieutenant with Portland Fire and Rescue. It’s great to have both of you on Think Out Loud.

Amy Hanifan first, what is Women In Fire?

Amy Hanifan: Thank you for asking. Women In Fire is, as you said, an advocacy group. We kind of think of ourselves as an inclusive organization. It just promotes women in the fire service and works with partners both at the national and international level to ensure that different topics and concerns are being addressed, and also to provide support for organizations that are looking to provide better inclusion within their own department or support for women who are either looking to get into the fire service or are already in and maybe have some things that they’re working through.

Miller: So on that last note, what are some of the issues that come up most often from women who are already in the fire service, and they come to you asking for help?

Hanifan: It really varies. If someone’s coming in asking for help, typically we’ll find that it’s someone who has waited until it’s their last straw, or they’re just not sure who else to turn to. Sometimes that might be asking for advice in promotions or even in hiring processes. We will have people that will reach out looking for advice on how to prepare for the physical evaluation that is often needed to get into the fire service. Concerns about how gear fits or your protective equipment functions seems to be a common topic. We’ll also have people reach out when they’re looking for support in training.

Miller: Steph Adams, as Amy had just mentioned there, I’ve seen that issue of gear not fitting brought up in a variety of places, including a recent report by the US Fire Administration. Is that something you’ve encountered in your own career?

Adams: Yeah. When I first got in, our fire gear, our turnouts that we use, we only had one kind of cut, for pants and coats. It was very boxy and too long and cumbersome. It was hard to move if you’re a female. As well as like our air packs, the chest straps would go directly across my chest, which would be uncomfortable for me personally. Things like that have changed. But I can say how they’ve changed in my department is we have a female who is our uniforms and clothing officer now. When she got that position, she addressed some of these issues. Now, my latest set of turnouts that I have, when I got sized, I was able to get a women’s cut that gave me not as long in the length and a little more room for my hips so I could actually move my legs in a way that was comfortable. So things have changed, but it did take getting a woman in that position to bring light to this subject.

Miller: That says something. And we can basically hear what you’ve described here, but we’re not talking about just comfort. It seems like this is literally safety. If, as a firefighter, you can’t move easily in your uniform, I imagine that that cuts into your ability both to fight fires and to be safe yourself.

Adams: It can if it’s something that you’re focused on. I don’t ever, on an emergency scene, want to be focused on what my gear is feeling like. We train a lot and we do get used to a certain amount of discomfort because that is just kind of a part of the job, anytime you’re wearing heavy, thick protective gear. But yes, I should be able to squat down and get into a lunge and not have to think about moving my coat up to account for the ways my leg moves, or be worried about a shoulder strap falling off or my pack becoming loose, things of that nature. The way a facepiece seal is around my face. So having different options now is certainly a stride in the right direction and has made a big difference for a lot of us that are out there working on the line.

Miller: Amy Hanifan, what does it tell you that in Lieutenant Adams’s experience, it was having a woman in the department who was actually in charge of these purchasing decisions, that was what made the difference?

Hanifan: I think it’s important that, whether it’s a male or female within those positions, that they understand the importance of proper fitting gear for all of their firefighters. I will say within my own department, I’ve had men that have commented on their appreciation of women in the fire service, pushing for better fitting PPE because they themselves maybe didn’t fit the mold of what a traditional firefighter in society’s eyes would. I think it’s important that departments are able to provide custom-fit gear, or gear that at least fits the firefighter who needs to be able to get out and be efficient at the task at hand.

Miller: Stephanie Adams, another big issue that’s being studied right now is the effect of fighting fires, including inhaling smoke while either pregnant or while breastfeeding. My understanding is that both of you had children after you became firefighters. Steph Adams, what was your experience being pregnant and working in the department?

Adam: We have a lot more things that are in place now and changes that have been made. But I had such a supportive crew that, when they knew that I became pregnant, I basically kind of became the permanent driver. I could still go into an IDLH, a hazardous atmosphere. But I was outside more, working the pump panel, driving the apparatus, setting up water supply, things of that nature, and I was just incredibly cognizant of knowing that if I was going to go into any sort of hazardous condition, that I would be sure to be on my rescue air supply. That was something I had the support of my crew where they were making sure that I wasn’t getting put into those positions as often as I would be if I wasn’t driving or riding in the back,

Miller: But you felt like you had support from your colleagues and your supervisors to keep yourself safe.

Adams: Yeah. I mean, I was very comfortable with my crew. But I can say, now, there are more options. There’s options for breastfeeding mothers. When I came back and I was still breastfeeding my daughter, we didn’t necessarily have things in place like the ability to, let’s say, go to a slower station, and not be as active as far as going out, and the call volume. Now we have the ability to get our own refrigerators in our room so we can do that and not have to use the station refrigerators. Some companies that are busier, if the member didn’t want to switch stations, they’re able to go out of service and allow for that mother to pump if necessary.

A lot of things are in place now because of women speaking up, and the support of our bureau and being willing to change. We’re hoping that there will be more women in the bureau and that this can get better, and the percentages will go up, so that this is more commonplace, and we have things in place for them to use.

Miller: Amy Hanifan, last year, the Center for Fire Rescue and EMS Health Research reported that 27% of pregnancies of firefighters end in miscarriage. They also found that preterm births were higher than the national average. New research which is being done now, but there’s some preliminary results out, suggests that mothers should not breastfeed for three days after firefighting and that during pregnancy they should not fight fires actively at all. What would all of that mean for the way fire departments across the country are currently set up?

Hanifan: Unfortunately there is a huge variance to what that means. I think in larger departments, and as Steph related there have been improvements and they have multiple departments and companies and they can kind of get a bit creative at times if the resources are there.

Miller: For example, in a place like Portland.

Hanifan: Right. Exactly. In your more rural settings, it becomes difficult because resources are much more limited. Some departments might only have one fire engine and not have the ability to either go out of service or have extra staff to be able to put that firefighter into a light-duty spot.

So I think it’s hard to put out a blanket statement of what that means for the fire service specifically. I do think though that our leadership in the fire service needs to start taking a look at the impacts to their employees and their staff when they are wanting to go through a pregnancy, and what it looks like to return to work and kind of look at what accommodations can be made.

Miller: What was your own experience in McMinnville? As you’re noting, there can be big differences between larger departments and smaller ones. You’re at a smaller one.

Hanifan: Right. It was a few years ago now, and at the time I was still working active on the line, and our resources were such that we did not have light duty in the sense of being able to be off the line. So light duty at that time would be just on a transporting ambulance. I myself chose to stay active and rotating through the engine until about five months pregnant, and then went on to what was seen as light-duty onto the ambulance for a couple of months and ultimately went out and opted to just be home from seven months on.

Miller: Did that affect your ability to move up in the department? You are now the Operations Chief with the department, so you clearly have moved up. But did having to take time away delay your ability to move up?

Hanifan: No, I wouldn’t say so. I was still able to stay engaged to the level that I needed to, but I also had good support in that when it was time to take time for my family, the department was very supportive of it at the time. I wouldn’t be able to correlate the two of it affecting my promotion.

Miller: Amy Hanifan to stick with you just a bit more, I’m curious. We talked earlier about the fact that sometimes you field calls from women who work in departments all across the country. How much do you hear now about sexual harassment or some kind of gender-based discrimination from people who contact you?

Hanifan: We do still hear about it. When we are contacted, we certainly provide a listening ear and support and we’ll try to point those who reach out to us in the direction of good resources. We aren’t necessarily a group that can be contacted and then we’ll take on a situation or a case or kind of get in the midst of something. But we certainly do still hear about issues of either harassment or bullying, and even occasionally some sort of sexual harassment complaint. Throughout the year, we have a good handful of those.

Miller: Stephanie Adams, a couple years ago a researcher who studied a lot of these issues told Reuters “I believe that women firefighters are often pressured to not address their unique concerns for fear of being labeled as a whiner or wanting special accommodations.” I’m curious if that’s something you’ve seen colleagues or people you’re aware of dealing with serious issues, but just realizing or thinking that they don’t really have the ability to bring them up?

Adams: I think just the nature of this profession, no one wants to be a whiner. We want to be known for working hard and doing whatever is necessary, even to the sacrifice of ourselves.

Miller: You’re the ones who run into the building. And that’s tied to a culture of just getting along?

Adams: Yeah. I feel like, whether you’re male or female, that’s the case. But being a female, I can say that in coming to this job, you do feel the need to assimilate. You want to be one of the crew, and the crew lots of time is predominantly male. I can say early on in my career I felt the need to assimilate. But then as you gain more confidence and move through your career and hopefully have good mentors and leadership, that would not be the case. But there should always be, in any department, a system in place where you can move forward if you’re not feeling comfortable. And there will hopefully be a support staff there where you can voice your concerns to someone before it would have to get to the level that Amy is talking about.

Miller: But Amy Hanifan, I imagine that short of people contacting your advocacy group, it would be people in your department, for example, contacting you, or you setting up a system, as Steph just noted, where all firefighters feel comfortable bringing up issues that they feel need to be addressed. How do you do that as a leader?

Hanifan: I think it’s important in any organization to really have that flow of communication identified. For instance, fire service is very paramilitary and typically you would report to your direct supervisor and they report to theirs and so on. And I think it’s important to have that mid-level management really trained to encourage their employees to feel like they can speak up, but also to train the peer group to feel comfortable and be connected enough to look out for each other, and to speak up when it’s necessary.

Miller: You both work for urban fire crews, even if they’re different sizes of departments. I’m curious how all these issues are different or the same or more complicated when we’re talking about hotshot crews or other wildfire firefighters. Stephanie Adams, do you have a sense for how that complicates these issues?

Adams: I have not worked extensively in wildland firefighting. I have not gone on any long deployments or done anything of that nature. But I can see how it would be incredibly complicated because, just for myself, I work a 24-hour shift. Sometimes these wildland deployments could be two weeks long. So that’s definitely a different dynamic living, with someone for 24 hour period versus living with someone for possibly two weeks in extreme conditions. I think that definitely is a different problem-solving technique, possibly a different skill set that’s necessary to address either of those

Miller: Amy Hanifen, what do you hear from wildland firefighters these days?

Hanifan: It is different. It’s a different schedule. I have a colleague who works for the US Forest Service, and she talks about the difficulty of moving from space to space, whether it’s a new state or something along those lines. And also, feeling just a bit alone in not necessarily having a ton of other people within the crew that she can identify with, as well as not really being able to set roots because of moving around so frequently. So I think it’s definitely a different dynamic than those of us who get to work for a structure department, and certainly comes with its challenges.

Miller: Steph Adams, I mentioned those numbers at the beginning, the estimate being that only about 4% of career firefighters right now are women. What led you to become a firefighter?

Adams: I grew up in a family that never told me I couldn’t do anything. So it’s kind of surprising that it came to me later on in my career. I was in my late twenties and working as a strength and conditioning coach in Greeley, Colorado. One of my specialty groups that I was training was the Greeley Fire Department. It actually took one of the officers within that department, he stepped up and he said “We’re hiring, I think you’d be really good at this. What do you think?” I was like “Wow, no one’s ever said that to me before.”

And I think that’s a huge thing. Growing up in the family that I did, as young women we just don’t see our pictures all the time in the storybooks. Back then it was fireman, and now it’s firefighter, we try to push that. And when you see someone in that gear, it can completely change your mind. So it actually took someone, a male officer, stepping up and telling me to do it. I did a ride-along and I just fell in love with it. So I decided to move back home to Oregon to pursue the profession.

Miller: What do you remember about that ride along that made you fall in love with it?

Adams: It was the team aspect. I come from a very athletic background. I love being a member of a team. And everywhere I worked up to that point, we said we were a team, but it wasn’t really as high stakes and as emotionally bought into as I wanted, as I was still thirsty and wanting in my life. So once I went on that ride-along, and I saw how much everyone had to work together, there wasn’t an option, you needed to work together, live together, and be committed to that. Once I saw that level of commitment, it was just something I wanted to be a part of.

Miller: Amy Hanifan, what about you? How did you find your career?

Hanifan: I actually was very interested initially in the healthcare aspect of it, but didn’t necessarily want to work in an office. When I was in high school, I did some ride alongs with McMinnville Fire where I currently work, and honestly just grew to fall in love with the fireside of the house. So working for an organization where I got to do both, start out as a paramedic and be a firefighter, is really what drove my career path early on. And I have just enjoyed staying connected with the community. That aspect of it means quite a bit to me. And as Steph relayed, the teamwork aspect is huge, and I just couldn’t imagine working in a field where that wasn’t the case.

Miller: Do you get the full feeling that the men on the team see you as a full part of the team? You both talked about how important it is to this sense of camaraderie and this team effort that you’re all working towards the same thing. But you also talked about this being historically a kind of boys club. Do you feel fully accepted by the men?

Hanifan: I would say I do. I don’t know that I would say that’s always been the case throughout my career, but I currently do, and I really have in the last several years. I think there have been some solid changes, whether it be within my own organization or in the fire service in general. But no, I would say I do. And what I appreciate is, with Women In Fire, we have several men who are very active members and allies. And I, at least in my experience, not only feel accepted but supported.

Miller: Steph Adams, what do you think it’s going to take to increase those numbers, so it’s more than 4% of career firefighters nationwide being women?

Adams: I think the messaging is going to have to change. Something that I touched on, the importance of calling the profession what it is, you’re a “firefighter.” Changing the outreach for the public and showing that there’s women that do this job. Things like camps. We just now had our Portland Metro fire camp, where we invited 30-something young women to come and actually get the gear on. Career days.

We’re showing young women that this is an option. That’s what really resonates with me. It wasn’t because I was told I couldn’t do it or I shouldn’t do it. I didn’t even know it was an option. So we need to get the word out there. We need to get into the community and let young women know that this is something that they can do, and when they get the job, they can still be mothers and they can climb in the ranks. They do have all that it takes and the support that they need.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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