Firefighters are firefighters, and we need many of them

Firefighters are firefighters, and we need many of them

27 May 2014

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AUSTRALIA – We need more women in the fire service, but publicly referring to our firefighters as sexist bullies is not the path to diversity.

Our firefighters do a hard job in Canberra. They are the first response to all fires, road accidents, rescue jobs and most medical emergencies. It is a demanding, difficult and incredibly rewarding job. The women and men of our fire service are the best of the best, and are among the highest trained firefighters in the country. Working conditions and rosters are incredibly family-friendly, and the culture we foster is one of camaraderie, openness and teamwork. You could not ask for a better job.

We are pleased to see the government committing money to increasing the number of women in firefighting (”ACT government launches campaign to attract more female firefighters to counter sexism”, May 26) but the perception of sexism simply doesn’t resonate with us.

Only 2 per cent of our firefighters are women, and while such a low take up is concerning, it is not unique to the ACT, or to firefighting. For many years we have been at the forefront of this debate, trying to find ways of recruiting a more diverse range of firefighters, be it on gender, sexuality or cultural background.

We have long argued that the answer to this problem lies in how we advertise firefighter jobs, and how we recruit people. If we had $160,000 to spend on this, we would use it creating a community education program targeted at young women who might consider a career in firefighting, and recruitment campaigns using inclusive language and imagery, advertised in places where women might take notice, such as fitness centres, online forums and internet sites with a high readership among women. The goal is to broaden the scope of our recruitment and to educate more women on the benefits of becoming part of the firefighting family. We have raised these ideas with government for many years.

When we advertise for new firefighters, we advertise for 16 people, and often get over 2000 applicants, the vast majority of whom are men. The 16 men and women who successfully make it through the process are the best of the best, who have met or exceeded our high standards for fitness, mental acuity and resilience. Their ability to succeed in this space has absolutely nothing to do with their gender. We aim to recruit the very best firefighters into our job, but we want that process to be about merit, not about gender.

In our view, more female recruits will come from increasing the number of female applicants. We need to target job ads better and smarter if we wish to attract a more diverse range of candidates.

The government has a perception that there is a culture of sexist bullying and harassment in the fire service. As someone who spends every day with firefighters at fire stations, this perception does not resonate with me. Of course, like any other workplace, there are isolated incidences of bullying in our service. Like any other workplace issues, these are dealt with and resolved. There is a difference though between a few isolated incidents and a ”pervasive culture” of sexist bullying, as Minister Corbell would have us believe. Our firefighters are very concerned that the minister has this perception of our culture. We would relish the opportunity to assist the minister in finding solutions to this ”problem”, but unfortunately he has been unwilling to share with us any evidence in the report that he refers to, despite direct requests from the union for over a year, and a freedom of information request last November.

In our view, a debate about the ”culture” of the fire service must include the view from the fire stations, where our firefighters actually work. Firefighters work in crews [four in a truck]. We eat together, clean together, train together and, ultimately, fight fires and save lives together. The fundamental aspect of this is that we absolutely must have trust and faith in each other to do this job. Discrimination of any kind separates us from each other, and that is not how we work.

The union absolutely supports any approach to increase the number of firefighters in Canberra. We will not, however, sit back and allow our members to be tarred with accusations of sexism and bullying, when that perception doesn’t fit our reality. We want to see more women applying for jobs in our fire service, but it is hard to see how Minister Corbell intends to attract more women into firefighting by publicly labelling us as a sexist workforce. We believe that an open, honest and transparent discussion about increasing the number of women in firefighting will result in real and progressive steps in that direction. Unfortunately, we have not been given the opportunity to engage in an open and honest discussion about this, and instead find ourselves defending our members against perceptions that are simply not based in reality.

Dave Livingstone is branch secretary of the United Firefighters Union, ACT Branch

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