We welcome anyone to join iWomen who shares our commitment to a harmonious, skilled, and gender-integrated fire and rescue service.
Although we have members across the U.S. and in many other countries, iWomen does not have local chapters. We do, however, support the growth of local networks of fire and rescue service women, and keep in touch with such networks. If we are aware of a group in your area, we will be happy to connect you with it. We can also help provide guidance and information if you are starting a local network in your own area or agency.
iWomen began in the fall of 1982, with the publication of its first newsletter. The organization officially incorporated in 1983, and held its first conference in 1985.
We have about 600 members, primarily in the United States, but also in Canada, Trinidad, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and Australia. These include career, seasonal, and volunteer women and men involved in all aspects of the structural and wildland fire service and EMS, and at all ranks.
Women have served as chiefs of volunteer fire departments since at least the 1930's. While numbers of volunteer firefighters are, as noted above, difficult to obtain, there are certainly more than 150 female volunteer fire chiefs active in the U.S. at any given time.
As of February 2005, there were at least 24 career-level or combination (i.e., with some career and some volunteer personnel) fire agencies in the U.S. whose top-level chief was a woman. The first woman to head a career fire department, Chief Rosemary Bliss in Tiburon, California, retired in 2002 after nine years as fire chief.
In the U.S., around 6,200 women currently work as full-time, career firefighters and officers. Several hundred hold the rank of lieutenant or captain, and about 150 are district chiefs, battalion chiefs, division chiefs, or assistant chiefs. [All of these numbers increase every year; for the most recent available statistics and a state-by state breakdown of the numbers, see our Status Report]. While accurate figures on volunteer firefighters are difficult to obtain, it can be estimated that 35-40,000 women are in the volunteer fire service in the U.S.
Women are firefighters outside the U.S. as well. The most significant numbers are to be found in Great Britain, where more than 200 women are wholetime (career) firefighters and approximately 200 others serve in a retained (volunteer) capacity. Women firefighters can also be found in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, France, the Netherlands, South Africa, Ghana, Panama, Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Chile, and Brazil.
How many women firefighters have died in the line of duty? A total of 98 fire service women are known to have died in the line of duty, including 23 British firewomen killed by enemy action in World War II. See our honor roll for more information.
The barriers that confront fire service women in the early 2000's are the same ones that face any traditionally excluded group beginning to make inroads in a new workplace. These issues stem from the history and tradition of firefighting as a male endeavor, and from societal constraints regarding men's and women's roles and perceived capabilities.
The main obstacles to women's full participation in firefighting can be summarized as follows:
Resistance from some elements of the workforce
* Sexual harassment and other hostile behavior based on gender
* Skepticism about women's competence as firefighters
* Emotional attachment to an all-male work environment
* Uncertainty over behavioral expectations in a mixed-gender workforce
* Perceived threat to self-image (i.e., being a firefighter does not bolster one's manhood if women can do it)
* Distrust of women's motivation for becoming firefighter
* Fire stations built to accommodate only one sex in sleeping, bathing, restroom and changing facilities
* Inadequate policies regarding firefighter pregnancy and reproductive safety, and inadequate information about the risks of firefighting to pregnancy
* Hair and grooming policies based on men's styles and needs
* Protective gear and uniforms designed to fit men, not women
* Lack of child-care options for workers on 24-hour shifts
Effects of the male firefighting tradition, and of societal beliefs about women and men
* Women may not believe they can be competent firefighters
* Women may not have the support of their spouse/partner in pursuing a fire service career
* Perceived conflict between a woman's self-image as a woman and her work as a firefighter
* Discomfort with the "pioneer" role (i.e., many women who would like to be firefighters don't want to be the first women on the job or the only woman in their firehouse)
* Distrust of the fire department's motivation for hiring women and what level of real support will be provided in the long run
* Lack of public support for women's presence in the fire service, based on a general perception that women can not do the job and are just being hired because of "affirmative action"
Obstacles that are not gender-specific -- that all firefighters face
* Physically demanding and dangerous occupation
* High level of stress due to exposure to trauma and tragedy
* Work schedule requiring nights and weekends away from home
* Sleep deprivation due to work schedule and stress
The black and white photo is of the women of the Woodbine, Texas, Ladies Volunteer Fire Department with their 1942 Ford pumper in about 1968. Vicki R. Schulte wrote about the history of the department in the June, 1997, issue of the iWomen newsletter, FireWork.
As far as we currently know, the first woman to be paid for fighting fires was Sandra Forcier, who was hired as a Public Safety Officer -- a combination police officer and firefighter -- by the City of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on July 1, 1973. Forcier moved into a fire-only position four years later. Battalion Chief Sandra (Forcier) Waldron retired from Winston-Salem in 2004.
Judith Livers (now Judith Brewer) was hired as a firefighter by the Arlington County, Virginia, Fire Department in 1974, becoming the first woman ever hired into a strictly firefighting position. Helping her firefighter husband study for his fire science classes, Livers learned about the devastation fire can cause, and was motivated to become a firefighter herself. She retired from Arlington County in late 1999, at the rank of battalion chief.
Many other women were in the fire service before 1974. The earliest were volunteer firefighters in urban and small-town settings, who date back to the 1800's at least. Molly Williams was the first known woman firefighter, an African-American woman held as a slave who worked on Oceanus Engine Company #11 in New York City in 1818. Women have also worked as fire lookouts since the early 1900's and, beginning in the mid-1970's, as seasonal firefighters in the wildland sector.