There are so few women in some Bay Area fire departments that their bathrooms are frequented by both male and female firefighters. In other departments, company-wide communications often refer to all firefighters as “he” or “him,” despite the longtime presence of women like Fire Capt. Kimberly Larson.
“It’s not that women don’t want to be firefighters, and aren’t capable of being firefighters,” said Larson. “It’s just that we’re never told, never exposed to it; it’s never seen as an option.”
Larson has set out to change that. In 2018, Larson founded NorCal Women in the Fire Service, a nonprofit that puts on annual camps for high schoolers across the Bay Area, designed to introduce young women to non-traditional careers like firefighting. Although this year’s cohort was smaller in scale due to the pandemic, enthusiasm for the job was at an all-time high.
“So many of them this time around said… ‘we’re going to be firefighters,’” said San Francisco Fire Capt. Julie Mau. “Just very, very self-assured, very determined.”
Nationwide, less than 5 percent of career firefighters are women, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In San Francisco, that number hovers around 15 percent, a national outlier for women in the fire service.
“We are definitely the most diverse department in the nation,” said Mau. But, she added, “the work continues.”
Firefighting is a physically, mentally and emotionally demanding job. It’s also overwhelmingly white and male, which leaves many women feeling isolated or sidelined professionally.
“There’s just not a critical mass of women,” said Corrinne Bendersky, a UCLA professor who researches diversity, equity and inclusion in firefighting. “The sense of isolation is just a numerical reality in most departments.”
This fact has also set the standard for departmental policies, leaving women to wonder about issues small and large, including what to wear to a job interview, how to negotiate maternity leave or even where to use the bathroom.
“I have to consciously think about which bathroom I will use today that will make the least amount of issue — that’s sad,” said Ashley St. Cin, a Bay Area firefighter and secretary of NorCal Women in the Fire Service.
When she first joined the profession, St. Cin said she felt like she was constantly being watched and judged, perceived as someone “trying to be a firefighter” and not a firefighter in her own right, despite years of training, testing and certifications.
“The persistent scrutiny and being under a microscope — and any mistakes being really, really held against you and proof of the assumption of incompetence… is absolutely pervasive,” said Bendersky.
Although many women say the cultural conditions are slowly improving, tension remains. “No one is going to flat out say, we shouldn’t have women in the fire service,” said Larson. “But that unconscious bias is still there.”
Fire camps aim to break down some of these barriers by building confidence in young women. “Having a bunch of female firefighters not just show that you can do the job, but tell you, ‘I believe you can do this,’” is so powerful, Larson said. “We want to be able to show them that they are capable of more than they think they are.”
The camps allow aspiring female firefighters to build confidence by practicing the trade firsthand. On a recent weekend in May, a group of 25 high school girls at First Alarm spent the day hoisting hoses, scaling ladders and tearing through plywood planks with chainsaws.
Getting more women to join the fire service, many say, will help improve the issues at hand. “We have a whole lot of opportunity here,” said St. Cin, noting the job’s stability, retirement benefits and the satisfaction that comes from serving the local community. “The fact that more people aren’t jumping on this tells me that they don’t really know it’s there.”
And it’s an opportunity that should be heeded as fires become a more pervasive challenge across California and beyond.
Bendersky points out that for municipal fire departments, a vast majority of calls are medical emergencies — situations that require not brawn and bravado, but compassion and care. These traits, she argues, are more stereotypically associated with women.
“It takes a lot of compassion and empathy and caring for people, and caring for the community,” said Mau. “What I’ve found is the people who come into the fire service, and especially the San Francisco Department, have the biggest hearts because you really do have to respond and help people on their worst day.”