“If you give us the chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” ―Ann Richards, Governor of Texas, 1988
Recruiting and hiring more women into the Austin Fire Department has been a cornerstone of our efforts for many years now. And we’re proud to say that the number of female firefighters in our department beats the national average by almost twice (3.5 percent to our 6.5 percent)!
The key? Making women aware that this is a career opportunity they should consider. The women in our ranks serve as ambassadors to qualified candidates because they know better than anyone what it takes to do the job. For example, they encourage and mentor high school girls to consider the career through such hands-on experiences as our Pass the Torch and LBJ Fire Academies, and continuing our own physical testing preparation program (FireFit), which is run by one of our female firefighters. That program is open to both men and women but we’ve found it to be especially helpful to small-statured individuals going through the hiring process as they prepare physically to compete for the job since it provides techniques, as well as strength training.
Having a female Fire Chief doesn’t hurt either! Chief Kerr is one of only three women in the country who serve as Chief of a large metropolitan department. This example to the women in our ranks—and in departments across the country—who may not have considered studying for promotion before is that they see that they can do it, too.
One of the biggest changes we’ve made is our “locker room project,” which was started several years ago to retrofit/renovate all existing fire station locker rooms to be gender neutral. Newer fire stations were automatically built this way, but older stations had to be changed to accommodate women in the workforce. In 2015, we will complete this project and all fire stations in the city of Austin will have gender-neutral locker rooms except for six. Those that are left cannot be renovated; that is due to the size of the land they sit on. There’s simply no room to add on to those stations; they would have to be completely torn down and rebuilt from scratch.
How have we changed through the years with regard to women? There are four key areas that include:
- Increased exposure of and awareness to the job;
- Helping ensure success with the physically challenging aspect of the job through innovative programs like FireFit;
- Fair, inclusive policies that recognize and celebrate differences; and
- A family-friendly environment through such things as maternity and paternity leave, post-natal support, etc.
And no, you don’t have to cut your hair (we get asked that one a lot)!