A small taste of equality for firefighters
Latest figures show that women are still a small part of the Fire and Rescue Services in England, with ‘worryingly low numbers’ of female firefighters.
Data from the Home Office shows that 19.7% of firefighters at the Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service are women, making it the one with the highest proportion of women firefighters in the whole of England.
This year, Gloucestershire ranked well above other fire and rescue services, and was the only one to have achieved a proportion higher than 15%. The West Midlands with 12.8% and Merseyside with 12.4% are next on the list. The GFRS has consistently ranked at the top for the last eight years.
Latest figures show that staff who identify as female make up more than 25% of the total workforce at Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service, including control room and support staff – 129 out of 502.
Chief Fire Officer Mark Preece says he’s ‘delighted that the high proportion of female firefighters we have at Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service has been recognised in these figures and ranked us the highest in the country. We strongly value equality and diversity in our workforce and will continue working hard to build on this.’
However, despite promising numbers, there is also the question whether this high percentage of women firefighters – relative to other FRSs in England – is also proof of a healthy and positive workforce culture; whether this male-dominated industry is finally seeing real improvements in the way it addresses gender equality.
His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services thinks not. In a 2021 report, His Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Wendy Williams said that the Gloucestershire FRS ‘hasn’t done enough to have its values and associated behaviours accepted and understood by everyone, or to promote a positive workplace culture, and previous efforts to instill these have been unsuccessful.’ She continues to criticise the service’s lack of initiative and added that she has ‘serious concerns about the way it promotes its values and culture, and how it is improving levels of understanding of the importance of equality, diversity and inclusion.’
This is proof that it’s not only about numbers – although employing more women is a first step towards fighting sexism in the workforce, still much needs to be done in terms of cultural values. To praise the GFRS for its high percentage of female firefighters without acknowledging and trying to dismantle the power structures at the core of firefighting seems a bit premature.
Josephine Reynolds, described as the UK’s first female firefighter, believes that virtually nothing has changed since she retired from the FRS 35 years ago.
‘The lack of female visibility in the industry means it's not a job women will necessarily think of applying for. Nothing has really changed. The numbers are so low it is absolutely disgusting that people have not found a way to tell girls that they should have a try,’ she told the BBC.
Indeed, across England, the percentage of staff in the fire and rescue service who identify as female has not seen much change over the last decade. As of March 2021,18% of the workforce in FRSs were women, only a 3-point increase from 2010. However, the whole workforce is smaller nowadays than it was 12 years ago, so the actual number of women in the industry is lower. In fire and rescue services, women predominantly have at-desk duties – they are 76% of control room staff and 55% of support staff. In 2022, out of a total of nearly 35,000 firefighters in England – that is, people who go on the field, less than 3000 are women.
There’s been a slow increase in yearly figures, but that is nowhere near enough. In a male-dominated industry, change is not to happen only at surface-level, but rather by effectively updating cultural values and the public discourse around the profession.
‘We continue to see worryingly low numbers of female and ethnic minority staff, particularly in firefighter roles.’
His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services not only acknowledges the need to push for diversity within the workforce but also criticises services that still haven’t done enough. His Majesty’s Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Roy Wilsher said that ‘too many services haven’t taken enough steps to promote and improve equality, diversity and inclusion. The diversity of most FRSs is in need of real improvement. We continue to see worryingly low numbers of female and ethnic minority staff, particularly in firefighter roles.’
And that is precisely the case for Norfolk FRS, which ranked last – consistently over the last few years – on the number of women in firefighting roles. With 36 women out of a total of 761 firefighters, the Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service ranks well below the England average.
Despite alarmingly low numbers, His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services judged that the Norfolk FRS has established a new comprehensive and measurable plan to drive diversity and inclusivity within the workforce. With the objective of developing strong, inclusive cultures and becoming an employer of choice, the service seems to be up for a much-needed update on its culture and EDI action plan.
Josephine Reynolds joined the Norfolk Fire and Rescue service in 1982, when she was 17 years old. At the time, she was the only woman who applied and would train alongside her male peers for 15 months. Although that didn’t not stop her, Josephine admits it took a certain type of strength to go through with it, something that she finds not only unfair, but also frustrating when looking at how little has changed in more than three decades.
No recruitment drive will truly work in balancing diversity and inclusivity in fire and rescue services until we have a real understanding of gender stereotypes within the workforce and encourage women to think of firefighting as a career for them. ‘Until we have a female version of fireman Sam so kids can see from a young age that girls can do the job. If we had female firefighters going into primary schools in uniform it would prove it's possible,’ Josephine says.