A recent news story in WREG highlighted HERo Day, an annual program, in its third year now, founded by the Memphis Fire Department and the Girl Scouts Heart of the South. The program aims to give nearly 200 young girls in the Memphis, Tennessee community, from grades 6-12, the opportunity to showcase their abilities by training with the men and women in their fire service. This year, training included working with fire hoses and rappelling down the side of a two-story tower; In addition to the training, the girls are also able to watch a search and rescue dog in action, as well as compete in a life-saving obstacle course, and be timed putting on the personal protective equipment used by firefighters as fast as they can. This effort is championed by MFD Fire Director Gina Sweat who told WREG, "I just can’t describe how emotional it is to see these young ladies excited and the possibility of doing something maybe they never thought about before." The MFD’s first female fire director believes that this opportunity will allow girls to realize what they are capable of, and may join the fire department themselves one day. The motto, “If she can see it, she can be it” echoes this sentiment.
While researching and writing about HERo Day, I couldn’t help but to think about the women who were firefighters throughout history. After extensive searching, I discovered that the history of women in the fire service, while may have been a rich one, has not been well documented. Women have always been in the fire service, however, not historically in a fire suppression role. However, occasional glimpses of these experienced women occur throughout the course of history; it’s not until World War II that women took on the roles traditionally given to their male peers. As the men were off fighting the war, the women at times were making up entire fire departments. As the war came to a close, the women who were tasked with fighting fires remained in the service. From this moment forward, the women of the fire service and their efforts began to be recorded. However, ill-fitting equipment along with resentment from their male counter-parts, made things difficult for these women. Despite these challenges, by the 1970’s women were becoming career firefighters. The NFPA library has manuals dating back to 1993 on the early standards regarding the treatment of women in firefighting.
Progress continues to be made, as according to an NFPA report “Firefighting Occupations by Women and Race” the annual average number of career women firefighters from 2011-2015, 13,750 or 4.6% of all career firefighters, has doubled since 2000. These girls are given opportunity to follow in the footsteps of parents, grandparents, and their heroes. Women currently make up about 7 percent of all firefighters (volunteer and career), and with the help from communities this number can continue to grow.
Interested in getting your community involved with NFPA? Don’t forget this year’s Fire Prevention Week is coming up! From October 8-12, you and your community can celebrate the fire service and Plan 2 Ways Out! http://www.nfpa.org/public-education/campaigns/fire-prevention-week