Cameron Brown, a former firefighter for the Fort Worth Fire Department, is used to manual labor.
She grew up on a farm in Virginia and regularly lifted hay bales and threw them on trailers. A physical ability test to get into the Fort Worth Fire Department wasn’t difficult, and she never had a problem with her male coworkers. She could also do things her male counterparts could not, she said, such as fitting into attics and vehicles during rescues.
“I was always open with them,” Brown said. “And I said, ‘I’m not the tallest. I’m not the strongest. But there’s one thing that I can guarantee you — if you’re down in a fire and I can’t get you out, you will not die alone.’”
Getting into the fire department isn’t easy. There’s many reasons why potential women firefighters aren’t hired. Some of the biggest reasons — failing an endurance test; no-shows; not passing a background check or interview. And around two-thirds of women who made it through the testing process weren’t hired by the department in 2017-18. Two years later, that number rose to 84%.
The report sounded the alarm on the increasing washout rate for women, and some council members assumed the department had taken a step in the wrong direction when it came to recruitment. The data reveals a more complicated story.
Brown never thought about leaving firefighting and stayed in the profession for more than 30 years in the Air Force and at Fort Worth’s fire department.
As for why there aren’t many females in the firefighting profession, she isn’t sure. But if she could take a guess, it might be because it’s a dirty job.
“When you come out of a fire … for several days afterward, when you take a shower when you’re working out, you can still smell that sewage,” she said.
The job’s hours are also difficult for family life, she said — 24 hours on, 48 hours off.
The low numbers reflect a national trend. In 2019, 8% of firefighters across the country were female according to the National Fire Protection Association. Of the 88,800 female firefighters, 14,900 were career and 73,900 were volunteers.
Staying in touch
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
That’s the motto behind the Fort Worth Fire Department’s approach to recruiting and retaining female firefighters. For some women, the hardest part is acing the timed mile run; for others, it’s the physical ability test. Some make it all the way to the interview stage, but just aren’t quite prepared to take the leap into a fire department.
Capt. Thaddeus Raven isn’t one to forget names; anytime a good candidate doesn’t make it through the hiring process, he stays in touch with her until the next cycle and encourages her to apply again.
“I didn’t get hired the first time,” Raven said. “Most people don’t get hired the first time.
Since Raven took charge of FWFD’s recruitment program, the number of female applicants has skyrocketed — from 69 in 2017 to 124 in 2020. Hiring numbers have been slower to increase, but they, too, are inching upwards. Because there are relatively few open spots compared to the total number of candidates, however, each class has seen a higher number of women drop out during the recruitment and hiring process than the prior one.
“I’ve never lost contact with them,” he said. “One lady, I called twice to say ‘Take this test again, we want to get you hired because you’re a great candidate. She got kicked out of the process twice, I called her, she came back this year and she is phenomenal.”
“We got one lady that was a gymnast and a cheerleader in college, and last year I had to take her out of the process. I called her to make sure she would take the test again, and sure enough she’s in the fire academy this year.”
Department changes physical test, implements mentoring
A major barrier to women’s employment in fire departments has been passing the rigorous physical tests required of recruits. Prior to 2017, the Fort Worth Fire Department required candidates to drag a charged hose (one full of water) and run up stairs, a daunting task for even the most prepared.
In 2017, the department adjusted its test to more closely resemble the national standard, called CPAT testing. Now, candidates drag an uncharged hose, among other physical tasks.
“One thing I’ve done that I’ve been successful with is I’ve reached out to ladies in the past, you know, who failed the physical ability test (prior to 2017),” Raven said.
He said he’s had several women come back and retest successfully since the change was implemented. Another important change came in the form of mentoring. The department now offers training to recruits to help them ace the physical test.
“You don’t come in blind,” he said. “We have experts come in and teach you to pass the physical ability test. You can come in three to four times a week if you want to. So if you’re struggling on something, we’ll show you techniques to pass.”
Female firefighters already working for the department are now assigned to assist during the hiring process, as well, including going to career fairs, participating on hiring interview panels and mentoring female candidates.
Linda Willing, a retired career firefighter and consultant who has worked with departments across the country on recruiting said one way fire departments have tried to recruit is through fire camps. The camps aim to expose young women to firefighting and the skills necessary for the job.
Fort Worth started Camp HEAT in 2019, a one-day fire and emergency medical program for girls between 14 and 19. The department said in the informal report it was inspired by the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services’ programs that introduces them to careers in fire and emergency services.
Bigger budget could help recruitment effort
For a long time, recruiting wasn’t a high priority for fire departments.
“The fire service was getting so many more applicants versus the number of jobs available,” Willing said. “You know, there was a feeling like ‘Oh, we don’t need to recruit.’ But, of course, sometimes you get a lot of people but not necessarily the right people.”
Out of thousands of applicants to the Fort Worth Fire Department each year, fewer than 200 are actually hired. There’s limited slots available, and even imminently qualified candidates might not make it in their first year.
Willing also said there’s a different dynamic in the job market now – lots of other jobs are available and many job searchers have an advantage because of that. She said a number of first responder agencies are having a hard time recruiting qualified people.
As the department continues to ramp up its efforts to attract female recruits, Raven said a larger budget could go a long way. Like all city departments, the fire department has had to be frugal with its resources during the pandemic, and some recruitment events were also canceled as a result.
“With a bigger budget, we could get out there more and travel more, stuff like that,” he said.
Amy Hanifan, president of Women in Fire said being proactive in representing what a department wants to look like are helpful tactics. She said departments should reflect the communities they serve, but also populations in general.
“That can make a big difference with recruiting,” Hanifan said. “We’ve heard from some women that have gotten into the fire service that they will research the social media or website of an organization to see if they feel like they look like they would belong.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.