All-female fire crews around the world: A natural example of an increase in diversity
Driving through my hometown this morning I took the opportunity to peer into the cab of a fire appliance as it passed me going in the opposite direction. I was hoping to glimpse an example of what is about to unfold in this article; would that not be a great introduction to this story? But, alas, the unsuspecting crew of my scrutiny were all white males – not at all representative of what is becoming less of a ‘phenomenon’ and more of an increasing occurrence, not just in the UK, but on a global scale.
Current statistics report that the percentage of female firefighters remains low: in 2021, the UK Home Office Fire Statistics reported that only 7.5 per cent of all UK firefighters were women. It is, however, a figure that is steadily increasing, especially in recent years. In 2015, the percentage of women was 4.7, and by 2019 it had increased to 6.4. Reported figures from around the world are similar, but something much more tangible than statistics has been developing globally over the last year or two that physically demonstrates the increase in women working as firefighters, and that is the creation, often by chance, of all-female fire crews.
Armidale Amazons, New South Wales
Before we explore the examples of today, it is interesting to note that the first all-female fire crews date back as far as 1901 in Australia and even further back to 1878 in the UK. Captain JTA Webb of the Armidale Fire Brigade established the Armidale Amazons in New South Wales, Australia, in 1901, assigning his own daughter, Minnie Webb, as Captain. He wrote to the Armidale Chronicle on November 9, 1901: ‘What shall we do with our girls? Perhaps it would be better to ask: “What cannot we do with them?” seeing that they are fast entering into every calling that was at one time held in monopoly by the male sex… These girls are thoroughly drilled in handling the engine, reel, fire escape and builders ladder [sic]. They jump from greater height than is usually attempted at fire competitions. They handle the hose at the top of a 50-foot ladder with a pressure of water that makes it difficult to control even on terra firma’.
Girton Ladies College Fire Brigade, Cambridge University
Originally from England, Captain JTA Webb was inspired to create the Amazons by the emerging all-female crews in England earlier in the 19th century, where groups of women were fully trained in the use of fire equipment to protect such establishments as hospitals and ladies colleges. One of these groups of women was the Girton Ladies College Fire Brigade. Girton College was established in 1860 as the first ladies college within Cambridge University, and its pioneering spirit encouraged students to turn their hands to many things. When two students witnessed a fire near to the college they realised how vulnerable they all were without any real protection, and so they started the Girton College Fire Brigade and were given all the necessary training from the London Fire Brigade (LFB). The existence of these early all-female brigades is testimony to the grit and determination of women more than a century ago that asks the question: why, today, are we still not seeing a fire and rescue service representative of its communities?
In an attempt to explore what is being done to answer this question, I have found crews in London, Scotland, Canada, South Africa, the United States and Australia that not only include women, but are made up of only women. Some have come together by chance because an increase in women in their service allows this to happen naturally, and others have been created to specifically address the under-representation of women in the sector.
Girton College Fire Brigade taken by R H Lord, 1889, with kind permission from The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge.
Chelsea Fire Station, London
In August 2020, by pure chance, an all-female crew assembled at Chelsea Fire Station in London, and to celebrate this phenomenon, the LFB posted a snap-shot taken by the crew on social media, stating: ‘We’ve come a long way since the first operational woman firefighter in London in 1892, but an all-female crew is still incredibly rare. We will continue to challenge the notion that firefighting is a male only role and promote how rewarding the career is for all… You CAN be what you CAN see!’
The post went viral and received an overwhelming amount of recognition and support from around the world: ‘Firefighter 11 years and counting, keep up the great work sisters, from the US’; ‘This shouldn’t be a rarity in 2020… but it is… wouldn’t it be lovely to have all-female crews and no one bat an eyelid?’
But, as testament to the rarity of an all-female crew, the post also attracted negative attention, asking inappropriate questions about calendars and making derogatory remarks about women driving fire appliances. In response, two of the firefighters from that LFB crew, Nikki Upton and Emily Butler, recorded a video reacting to the misconceptions and defending their right to work in a profession they deserve to be in. It was an effective reaction, but why should they have to defend themselves at all?
Antarctic Fire Angels
Two years on and Nikki and Emily are now members of the Antarctic Fire Angels: the all-female team of six UK firefighters who are currently training to ski 1,130km from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole, each pulling a sled weighing in excess of 80kg, in November 2023; a first for an all-female emergency services team. This incredible mission comes from a desire to eradicate gender stereotypes and raise awareness of the impact of poor mental health and is further proof of the strength and determination of us mere women!
Since the “phenomenon” of the all-female crew in London in 2020, repeated occurrences are being more frequently reported. In February 2022, STV News reported that: ‘Only seven per cent of Scotland’s firefighters are women, but that trend is being bucked in Campbeltown, where five of the 18 retained crew are female’.
Campbeltown is the only station in Scotland that can crew a full appliance with women. Ashleigh Conner is 23 years old and believed to be the youngest appliance driver in Scotland. She told STV News: “In 2019, as I had my HGV license through work, I was asked if I would like to go ahead and sit my blue light training to help out with a shortage of drivers… I do get funny looks sometimes as if, ‘oh, it’s a woman driving that!’” As well as working a full-time job, Ashleigh enrolled in the service because she wanted to give back to her community and inspire other women to join her.
Rachel McPhail is a full-time project manager who says of her firefighter role in Campbeltown: “It’s a massive commitment but worth every minute… I could not imagine my life without a pager. I love giving back to the community and helping people.”
But it was not London or Scotland that inspired this article to be written. It was a post on Twitter in April 2022 from Women In Fire that said: ‘Vancouver Fire Department Capt. Heidi Parr leads the first all-female crew in the department’s 150-year history’. This is news, I thought. And in celebration of FIRE and Fire International’s increasing global reach, this is global news.
Ashleigh Conner, Campbeltown Station firefighter, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.
Vancouver Fire Department
Heidi Parr has reported to various news outlets that this was not a planned initiative, it just happened “by chance”, which is representative of an increase in female firefighters. In Vancouver Fire Department (VFD), crews are formed on an annual basis, and they take into consideration rank, paramedic classification and other parameters, but never gender. This year it just so happened that Heidi was matched to serve with Melissa Anthony and Hannah Nelson. “It happened all on its own!” Heidi told The Columbian.
Heidi was the second ever woman to join the VFD in 2002, and she was the first woman to be promoted to captain in 2017. Now she celebrates another milestone as the predominantly male workforce is exhibiting its natural increase in diversity. Fire Chief (FC) Brennan Blue told The Columbian: “We want to have our workforce be more reflective of our community.”
Historically, there have been gender discrimination complaints within the VFD that have prompted structural changes within stations to accommodate men and women working together and additional training in anti-harassment. FC Blue continues: “I think there has been a realisation in a bit of a culture shift that this is a team and a family environment. We can respect each other’s differences and still work together in a cohesive environment.”
The natural development of all-female fire crews is on its way to becoming less of a “phenomenon” as diversity within the fire sector is increasingly addressed; a quick search on the internet will offer many more examples than the few I have delivered here. But there are other initiatives afoot that have purposefully developed all-female firefighter crews in order to address not only the gender gap within the sector, but also to offer engaging and useful opportunities to those who, because of their disadvantaged background as well as their gender, are otherwise at risk of being forgotten and marginalised within society.
Captain Heidi Parr, Vancouver Fire Department. Credit to The Columbian and photographer Taylor Balkom.
The Juliet Crew, Cape Town
Dean Ferreira is the Managing Director of NCC Environmental Services in Cape Town, South Africa, a consultancy providing specialist environmental, health, safety, risk, sustainability, training and quality management services, alongside integrated conservation biodiversity management. In 2019, as a means of increasing the workforce to protect the area from wildfires, and to offer local young women useful employment, Dean created the Juliet Crew – named after the only feminine letter in the phonetic alphabet. Dean is passionate about firefighting, regardless of gender, and is reported as saying on the NCC website: ‘Over time they will stand shoulder to shoulder – not male or female, just firefighters in green and yellow’.
The Juliet Crew has been a successful initiative that is still in operation today. Last year, the crew consisted of ten women and answered call-outs to both Table Mountain National Park and Cape Nature Reserves, and in a video about the crew on the NCC website, it is clear to see how empowered these women are. They are mostly young adults from areas renowned for poverty, crime and violence, and many are the only breadwinner in their family. The opportunity to serve and protect their environment and local communities has in turn protected them from the possibility of a much worse fate.
Becoming a firefighter has been a dream come true for Sharne Maritz, who has wanted to be one ever since she watched them at work as a child. She was continuously discouraged and told it was not a job for girls, until she found the Juliet Crew through the Chrysalis Academy, a youth development centre that is working in partnership with the NCC to recruit members to the team. Sharne says: “I have a lot of bad memories growing up in my area. I got really close to some friends but they made some bad decisions, and because I didn’t follow them, I always ended up being alone and started getting bullied by them. When I was little, I saw the impact firefighters made when fires occurred in the community; how they brought hope to the community. When I saw that, I realised this is something I want to do.”
The crew follow a strict training routine, working out regularly together to build both physical and team strength. Vuyiseka Arendse is another Juliet Crew firefighter. She says: “People think this job is only for males because men are seen as the stronger people, they can do anything, they can climb mountains… We want to show the whole of the continent, and the world, that we can also do the job.”
Inland Crew 5, California
It seems women are in high demand for the protection of communities and landscapes from wildfires. In California in 2020, four million acres were affected by fires, and the state experienced its first fire tornado generated by the intense heat. Like the NCC in South Africa, California has its own conservation and protection agency for the protection of life and land from wildfire: the California Conservation Corps (CCC), offering unique and challenging experiences for young adults across the state. In 2018, the concept for an all-female crew came together after state and federal agencies were having a hard time recruiting female firefighters. Today, Inland Crew 5 is based in San Bernardino and is made up of 14 women, all in their early 20s and all from diverse backgrounds.
The work is gruelling and unglamorous and in a video on The Independent website, these women talk openly about coming to terms with their own mortality and accepting that they might not come home from work one day when facing the terrible wildfires. They talk about the barren and alien landscapes that have been charred black, leaving ash piled knee deep, and coming so close to the raging fire that the heat is terrifying. But they express all this with pride, not fear or regret.
Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust County Fire Authority, Victoria
To conclude this swift tour around the world of all-female fire crews, we come full circle to a group of indigenous women in Australia who took it upon themselves to form the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust County Fire Authority nearly two decades ago, after a series of deliberately lit fires destroyed a family home. Charmaine Sellings, Rhonda Thorpe, Marjorie Proctor and five other volunteers arranged training from the County Fire Authority, and soon after the team were driving fire trucks, using chainsaws to clear paths through forests and responding to fire emergencies and road traffic accidents across Victoria.
In a recent interview with The Australian Women’s Weekly, 52-year-old mother and grandmother, Charmaine, said she feels empowered that she can help the 200 residents in their self-governing Aboriginal community of Lake Tyers: “We are the lifeline if anything goes wrong, so we have an important role to play… There was a sense of helplessness before we came along, but we feel empowered that we can look after ourselves and our people whatever the situation. The community is proud of us and they value us.”
Charmaine also talks about the valuable life skills they have developed: “It’s given us enjoyment, friendship, a great sense of camaraderie among the women and independence… Positive self-esteem and confidence too… and it’s taught us how to work together, not just within our own community but the wider community too. We’ve met so many new people and developed leadership skills, ways of communicating to one another, and we’ve learnt how to deal with stressful and difficult situations – without throwing a tantrum! It’s serious business, but we have a laugh too and we’ve built lifelong friendships.”
With hindsight, each of the stories I have touched upon in this article warrant a full article of their own. They each have a much larger and more engaging story to tell than I have allowed for here. However, as a selection – a taste – of what is happening and developing around the world for women who are, and who dream of being, a firefighter, this is encouraging news.
I think the LFB said it best in their previously mentioned social media post: ‘You CAN be what you CAN see!’
Childs, M. (2013). What shall we do with our girls? A personal narrative concerning ‘The Amazons - The First Ladies Fire Brigade’ 1901-1903 Armidale, Australia. Version Draft 1, pp.1-27, http://womeninfirefighting.blogspot.com.au/
Home Office Fire Statistics Table 1103: Staff headcount by gender, fire authority and role, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/fire-statistics-data-tables#workforce-and-workforce-diversity
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