When Heather Buren first started fighting fires in California more than 20 years ago, she remembers often wearing boots that were a size too big, but she couldn’t let that slow her down. She recalls other women with even smaller feet finding ways to adapt with the ill-fitting gear, like tucking an extra sock in the boots to keep them from slipping.
“When you’re in a situation and department that is so male dominated, you’re fighting all these fights about just fundamentally being able to be there,” Buren says. When it came to the gear, “This is one of those ones where we’ve just been like, oh well, we’ll just make it work.”
Big boots, slipping helmets, and uniforms that needed tailoring are just more barriers women need to overcome in order to thrive in fire departments that are still overwhelmingly male. Fire seasons in places like Australia and California are growing longer and deadlier, and fire services need every qualified person they can get to meet the challenge. Phasing in gear that fits a broader range of body types is one of the last frontiers to building a more diverse force of emergency responders. It’s also a necessary transition to keep them safe on the job in a world that’s increasingly on fire.
“It’s kind of a wicked problem,” Jennifer Taylor, director of the Center for Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends at Drexel University, tells The Verge. Baggy gear can be more than just a nuisance, Taylor explains. It can get caught on debris or branches, which can slow someone down or be downright dangerous while battling a blaze. Some women have tried altering clothing on their own to make it fit better, only for those alterations to fail in the midst of a rescue.
“You can imagine that if I am wearing gear that’s made for a six foot tall man I’m going to have a problem getting it to fit me and that can encumber my movement, my flexibility, my ability to evade hazards, to have the gear fit my body, the way it should because it’s been optimized through research and development for protection,” Taylor — who is five-foot-five — says.
Gear needs to fit well for another reason: to protect firefighters from being exposed to the toxins that are often present in smoke and debris. Ill-fitting gear can leave skin exposed to nasty chemicals, Taylor says. Anywhere where there’s a gap is an opportunity for toxins to creep inside the gear and eventually inside the body.
The risk of exposure to carcinogens is growing as fire seasons become more destructive in places like California. Hotter weather, less snow, and more intense droughts have extended fire season across California’s Sierra Nevada mountains by two and a half months — and that means more blazes to battle. There are new hazards to face, too. Thanks to urban expansion and climate change fueling perfect conditions for firestorms in the west, firefighters are increasingly responding to blazes straddling both wildlands and neighborhoods. These conditions unleash dangerous fumes from burning homes and the consumer products inside, a threat that wildfires, in particular, haven’t posed in the past.
“Firefighters are literally on the front lines of climate change, and the toxic chemical exposures that come with fighting these wild and urban interface fires that are happening with more intensity and frequency,” says Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who is conducting a study to monitor female firefighters’ exposure to chemicals linked to breast cancer. In another recent study, she found that firefighters who responded to the 2017 Tubbs Fire in wine country north of San Francisco had elevated levels of mercury in their bodies, which can damage a person’s nervous, digestive, and immune systems and even lead to neurological disorders. They also found elevated levels of perfluoroalkyls, or PFAS, in their blood, which are chemicals used in fire retardants that some lawmakers have recently pushed to ban because they’ve been associated with an increased risk of cancer and damage to the immune system.
In San Fransisco, 15 percent of the department’s female firefighters between 40 to 50 years old have been diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s a rate six times higher than the national average, NBC News reported in 2018.
San Fransisco’s fire department is unique in the United States. A string of discrimination lawsuits forced it to hire more women and people of color after 1988, and now it has more female firefighters than any other department in the country. It swore in its first openly LGBTQ fire chief last year, Jeanine Nicholson, a breast cancer survivor.
A lot has changed in San Fransisco in the past 32 years, but women still make up less than 20 percent of San Francisco’s fire department. Across the US, fire departments remain overwhelmingly white and male. Career firefighters within departments in the US are still, on average, 95.5 percent male and 81.8 percent white, according to the most recent report from the National Fire Protection Association. The lack of diversity is a problem when it comes to the cultural sensitivity needed to best serve a community, experts say. “They’re frequently interacting with members of the public in the worst, most traumatic situations of their lives. They are often entering people’s homes, entering people’s bedrooms,” says Corinne Bendersky, a professor of management and organizations at UCLA. “If the fire service doesn’t look like the community it serves, it challenges their ability to effectively consistently deliver that high quality level of intimate professional engagement.”
As fire services across the world start to diversify, they have begun providing gear and equipment in more sizes and even ensure that it’s custom-fit. “Most things, the chair that you’re currently sitting on, it was developed for a six foot tall, 175 pound man,” Taylor says. “The man was the standard and that’s our history and that’s how we design things. That’s changing.”
Honeywell, a major manufacturer of firefighter turnout gear, tells The Verge that it became the first company to customize its gear to individual firefighters about 25 years ago. About 10 years ago, the company noticed the shift in demographics and began interviewing women to get input on how to make its gear fit better and be more comfortable. Taking inspiration from sportswear, it started offering even more customized tailoring, making the gear more ergonomic. It now customizes gear for 285,000 active firefighters, a majority of career firefighters in the country.
But Taylor says that while there’s been important progress in big-city departments in the US, smaller departments and volunteer firefighters haven’t necessarily had access to all of those changes. Sixty-five percent of firefighters in the US are volunteers, according to the most recent numbers from the National Fire Protection Association. And while women make up 4 percent of career firefighters, a higher ratio — 9 percent — are volunteer fighters. Volunteer firefighters usually serve communities in rural areas with populations of less than 25,000 people. With smaller budgets, they often rely on older or borrowed equipment. “That is kind of the last frontier of the fire service,” Taylor says. To beat its worsening blazes, California relies on inmate firefighters, including women, that volunteer through the Department of Corrections’ firefighting program. (They’re paid a small amount, well under the state’s minimum wage.) Across the sea, similar issues are playing out in Australia.
Nine in ten of the firefighters battling Australia’s historically bad blazes this year are volunteers. The country has historically viewed firefighting as a shared, community duty — particularly in remote, rural areas where nearly a third of the population lives. Like the US, volunteer forces there are still majority male, but they have higher proportions of women in comparison to career firefighters: 19 to 44 percent of volunteer firefighters are female across fire services in different regions, while just 2 to 5 percent of career firefighters are women. They’re given government-issued gear that is usually off-the-rack, but recently, more fire services have offered personal protective clothing designed to better fit female figures. (Although it hasn’t been rolled out everywhere just yet.)
That’s “been completely revolutionary because all of a sudden you’re getting jackets and pants that are shaped for hips and chests,” says Stephanie Looi, a volunteer firefighter and vice president of Women and Firefighting Australasia, a nonprofit group that advocates for women in firefighting. She says she first got the more tailor-made gear a couple of years ago. “It’s pretty amazing to be able to climb up into a truck without having to hitch your pants up or to be able to climb over a tree that’s fallen on the ground without having to stop and hitch your pants up,” she says.
There are still unfair assumptions that anyone who doesn’t fit that six-foot male mold somehow isn’t strong enough or fit to serve in the service. Pushing to make changes in order to accommodate people with different body types has been met with the argument that it lowers standards. Ladders have been a flashpoint for this argument. Efforts to make ladders with lighter materials or to add additional pulleys to extension ladders to reduce the amount of force needed to extend them have received pushback in California. When extension ladders were modified in Los Angeles, some complained that it “lowered standards,” Bendersky tells The Verge. “It creates a narrative that increasing representation of women is undermining the integrity of the force,” she says. In reality, making the extension ladder easier to use reduced the risk of injury for all firefighters, not just women, Bendersky explains.
Her research found that women were more likely to be constantly drilled on the toughest physical tasks, regardless of how long they had been in the force. That type of pressure is not only unfair and exhausting for women, but it can be detrimental for departments to value brute force over other important strengths. Intellectual, social, and emotional skills are necessary for the job, too, Bendersky says. And recognizing those skills — in firefighters of any gender — can help departments become more inclusive.
Taylor’s research found that having different perspectives in a firefighting team was also good for fostering a safer work environment. Women are socialized to respond to risk differently than men, Taylor explains, and that can help them find ways to solve a problem while minimizing unnecessary risk and injury. “[Women] may look at risk differently and have something to say that slows down the kind of heroic and macho way that we’ve traditionally responded to fires and really thinks about how do we get this job done, save the community, but also save the firefighters from getting unnecessary exposures,” Taylor says.
Ultimately, more inclusive and diverse departments are more effective departments. That’s all the more important because, as climate change tests firefighters’ abilities to meet new challenges, fire services will need to be at their best.
In Australia, where extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change have fueled one of the most intense fire seasons yet, the value a more diverse force adds can come down to simple math: “It’s not rocket science that having more women in the volunteer fire service just makes more sense in this context,” Looi says. “The more bums on seats you get, the more trucks you get out the door, and the more people you have to fight a fire.”
Correction 2/21/20 6:24 PM EST: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Stephanie Looi’s name. A previous version of the article misspelled her name. We regret the error.