My thoughts for today about my fire company:
Being a female in the volunteer fire service comes with a unique set of challenges; some of which are very real and nearly tangible, and others, I admit, may only exist in our (often self-conscious) imaginations. These challenges present themselves differently for all of us, so I am not speaking for every firefighting woman out there- these thoughts are merely a reflection of my own observations and experiences, of which I’m feeling particularly compelled to share today…
When I initially joined the fire service a little over two years ago, there was only one nagging thought that was causing me any self-doubt- “can I do this physically?” What I never thought to consider was the more relevant question of “can I do this mentally?”
It didn’t occur to me that creating a niche for myself as a female (a straight, unmarried female at that) in a male-dominated organization would require as much wherewithal as it has. And now that I have become keenly aware of the inherent challenges and the impact they have on my experience in the fire service, I am a much, MUCH, happier “lady firefighter.”
When I interviewed with my new fire company in July, I was astounded by the honesty and thoughtfullness of one simple statement that was made to me that I’ll do my best to paraphrase: “You’ll be the only girl around here, but I know you will be welcomed with open arms and everyone will make you feel comfortable here.” The fact that these group of men acknowledged what I’ll call “my femaleness” (for lack of a better term) and gave me reassurance about my place within their family before I was even voted in, was enough to clue me into the fact that I had found the perfect home for myself.
What I never thought to consider was the more relevant question of “can I do this mentally?”
After a couple of awkward months of answering questions like “oh hey, does what I just said count as sexual harassment or are we good? Not used to having a lady around here.” and then rolling my eyes and trying not a laugh at the follow-up comments- “she’s no lady!”, I woke up this morning feeling the most confident I have ever felt since the day I decided to become a volley, all because of a few simple experiences I had yesterday…
During our company training last night, I noticed that the instructor for the evening looked me in the eye and spoke to me when providing explanations and directions. If you made it this far, you may be wondering why that is significant. The significance lies in the fact that, believe it or not, this has not been my typical experience, particularly when there is a male of equal experience (or should I say, inexperience) in attendance as well. My observation is that men tend to direct their attention toward other men, and then the females follow their lead. Let me clarify that I am not proposing that this phenomenon is intentional, and for all I know, we women may have the same tendency. All I know is I appreciated the eye contact and it made me feel valued, both as an individual and as a part of the larger group.
Then around 2:30 am I find myself finally making it to my first fire (as part of the fire crew) with my new company. I had no idea what to expect, and I wasn’t 100% sure what was going to be expected of me…the only thing I was sure of was that I better figure out how to do whatever they told me to do.
I was put in charge of the hydrant, something I have done a million times, but of course in the moment, I suddenly seemed to forget what a fire hydrant was altogether. And just as it all came back to me, I no longer had that responsibility. As I stood on the sidewalk, trying to get a glimpse at all the action, I couldn’t help but experience that disheartening feeling of being grounded as a kid and watching all my friends play outside from the front window of the house.
What happened next is what made me wake up today and experience an overwhelming sense of pride in my fire company. Once things had calmed down a bit, everyone grabbed me and took me off in different directions to show me this, teach me that, put me to work where they could (which wasn’t much since “all the tall people jobs were done already”) , and answer my questions. And I didnt have to beg anyone to do that. In fact, I didnt even ask… it just happened, because thats what you do when you have an interest in developing your members, male or female.
I realized then that these men recognized my goals, understood my level of experience, and are willing to put as much effort into developing me into a great firefighter as I am willing to put into it myself. Being “the only girl” in the company has the potential for so many challenges, but when everyone’s main focus is to simply put out the fire, those challenges tend to be extinguished as well.
So I owe my new family a big “thank you” for living up to your promise to welcome me with open arms, and for having a bigger role than you will ever know in keeping me engaged with the fire service and on track with my vision for myself within it. Thank you for acknowledging me, and for your transparency while you adjust to having a “lady” around the hall. This awesome experience is not one that I am neccessarily used to, and is not one that many women are lucky enough to have in the fire service… I am very grateful.
Also- please remember the “there’s a lady around the hall” concept when deciding if you should smell up the men’s or the women’s restroom in the club room going forward, thank you! 😉