When we were young whippersnappers and thought about the service, the term ‘fireman’ was the word that sprang to mind. Not ‘firewoman’ but ‘fireman’. As children it’s perceived as a male thing with typically young boys having fire trucks and fire service outfits as dress up clothes, rarely do young girls have these things. A lot of children growing up wouldn’t think so much of women in the fire service, and would be blinded by the word ‘fireman’. Now a lot of this relates to gender imposition in society as well as gender politics, however that’s not what this interview is completely about.
Even now, at the time of writing in 2020, the amount of women in the fire service is still really low – it’s still a heavily male dominated career. According to a report by the UKHome Office from April 2018 to March 2019, only 16.7% of people employed by fire and rescue authorities were female. This is shockingly low. However despite the low percentage,compared to 10 years ago the number of females in the role has increased but only by 2.1%. An increase that is as whopping and amazing as being delayed at a train station with no bathroom whilst you’re dying for a shit. Despite the marginal increase, an increase is still a good sign and can be taken as a sign of hope of changes in workplaces that are heavily dominated by the patriarchy.
My knowledge and expertise of the fire service is very limited. Last year a pal of mine undertook testing to become a full time firefighter, ran more miles in a day than I’ll ever run in my life and passed the final rounds. Ultimately she undertook a role in the ambulance service but her experience got me thinking a lot about women in the fire service, which lead me to a former colleague of mine, Frankie Berks.
Frankie and I worked together back in 2015 in my first year of outdoor activity instruction. During that year Frankie began doing all the tests and examinations to enter the fire service. After successfully passing the recruitment process, she has transitioned from part time in the service to a full time fire fighter. Currently the only female fire fighter I know, I spoke to Frankie about being a woman in the fire service and what can be done to engage more young girls into pursuing a career as a fire fighter.
Cheers again for doing this! Want to just start it off withwhat made you think about entering the fire service and pursuing it as a career?
I’ve wanted to be a firefighter for as long as I can remember, I can’t remember why when I was really young. There was one time I was asked to draw a picture of what I wanted to do when I grew up. I drew a fire engine. Then I got laughed at. I joke that my career is just me holding one big grudge from that day! But as I got older I realised it was the perfect job for me. It is challenging, no day is the same, you work in a big team and you can go home at the end of a shift having helped someone. That was the main attraction for me.
For all humans like me who don’t really know much or anything at all, talk us through a standard day (if there is such a thing) in the fire service?
As you said, there is no such thing as a ‘standard day’ because you could get a job at any point. But there’s a routine if we’re in the station, we start at 8am on a day shift. We test our BA sets (breathing apparatus) and check the equipment and fire engines. Then the morning normally consists of going to the gym and doing weekly or monthly test on gear and the cutting equipment we use on cars. After lunch we do training, familiarisation visits or home fire safety visits. A day shift finishes at 6pm.
The fire service is heavily dominated by men, with a recent report by the UK Home Office stating that 83.3% of people employed by fire and rescue services were men, leaving the number of women employed at a rather low16.7%. In the same report it stated that 16.6% of new firefighters joining the service were women. What do you feel can be attributed to the fire service being overwhelmingly dominated by men?
Well I can’t say for certain but I believe it could be to do with how the job is portrayed in the media and movies. It always seems to be big guys, with people over their shoulder running out of burning, collapsing buildings. Where in reality that’s far from the truth. We do those things but, realistically, modern day procedures are very different. I hope as more women join, it’ll continue to encourage more women and there’ll be a positive knock on effect.
Going back to the vigorous process of entering the service, how many other females were there other than yourself?
On my training course of 24 (I think) there was myself and one other women. We were split up, with one of us in each squad which seems to be the done thing!
Did the instant knowledge that not many women were entering when you entered make you think about how it is a very male dominated field of work?
I was aware I was entering into a very male orientated environment. It’s not something that worried me as I’d worked in very male dominated work places when I worked in mountain biking. There are pros and cons; if you do something well, you’re easily remembered but it works both ways when you mess up!! I do remember a sense of relief when I saw another female on my first day, just purely to have someone to hang out with in the changing rooms!
When you transitioned to full time, were there any prejudices against you because of your sex or was it something that never seemed to really matter to anyone in your station?
This is a difficult question! The majority of people I work with have been amazing, and I call some of them good friends now. There is some prejudice in the service and I’d be reluctant to say too much but I would say is it’s important as a female to find the people who support you and focus your energy there. Work hard and don’t allow yourself to be treated poorly, I’ve found sticking up for myself the best remedy.
Compared to the Police Force, the fire service hassignificantly less female employees. According to a March2018 UK Home Office report, 30% of people in employed in the Police Force were women. What do you feel attributes to women being more interested in going into other services than the fire service?
I’m not really sure but as I touched on before, it could be to do with how these job roles are portrayed and our expectations of the job. In my experience there seems to be loads of female paramedics and more and more female police officers. The application process to the fire service is pretty physical, you have to do tests on working at height, upper body strength, confined space, dexterity, equipment carry, beep test and casualty drag. This can be pretty daunting so could be a factor!
I’m huge into my gender politics and believe from a young age if you market and give toys to one sex of a certain employment field the other sex will start to attribute this to a thing just for the opposite sex for many years. A lot of toys these days and especially when we were younger weregeared towards the gender impositions placed down uponboth sexes. Toys marketed towards genetic males tend to be more orientated towards work that is very practical and physical such as engineering, fire service and mechanics. Whereas to genetic females it’s more jobs that involve domestic chores and being creative, along with raising a family and nurturing kids. I attribute these a lot to the low numbers in the fire service, along with other male dominated jobs. By promoting from a young age that girls can do anything and certain things aren’t just boy things, more and more girls will be inspired from childhood to take up jobs that are male dominated. How do you feel about this and in what ways do you feel young girls can get inspired to join the fire service?
I completely agree and think things are slowly starting to change but there is a long way to go! I see myself as somewhat responsible for getting other females and young girls to want to be a firefighter. I’m a walking advert at the end of the day. I think it’s important to be open and honest, be a good role model and show women you can do what the men do. I don’t have kids but if I do one day, teaching them they can do whatever they set their minds to, male or female, is really important to me.
To wrap it up, do you have any interesting stories you can tell everyone reading, that you experienced in your 4 years of working in the service?
There are loads of stories I could bore you with! My job is so diverse, I’ve been to plane crashes, water rescues, car crashes and house fires. I’m an animal lover and we go to a lot of rescues whether it’s dogs or horses. We had one fire at a pet shop, fortunately most of the animals survived so rescuing the animals was a highlight of my career so far!
Huge thanks to Frankie for doing this and if you want to follow her on Instagram to see her badass self take on life and a feed filled with fire service stuff, mountain bike stuff and her dog then give ‘frankieeb_’ a wee follow!
Swankie. 23, Scotland. Loveable Loser.