Virginia fire de­part­ments try to re­cruit, re­tain women

Spark­ing in­ter­est has been per­sis­tent strug­gle

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY TIF­FANY STEVENS

ROANOKE, VA. | Be­fore she left the Roanoke Po­lice Depart­ment’s An­i­mal Con­trol Unit, Caitlin Ward had never con­sid­ered be­com­ing a fire­fighter. But about a year later, she found her­self with an ap­pli­ca­tion.

Ms. Ward said she’d of­ten worked along­side city fire­fight­ers while with an­i­mal con­trol. She knew she wanted to con­tinue work­ing in pub­lic safety even af­ter leav­ing the unit. And see­ing the fire depart­ment’s work and shar­ing din­ner with friends she made at lo­cal sta­tions helped her de­cide what ca­pac­ity she wanted to serve in.

“I think the more I thought about it, the more I thought it could be some­thing I re­ally like,” Ms. Ward said. “I knew I didn’t want to be an of­fi­cer. I thought, ‘Well, let’s try that.’?”

The 24-year-old bor­rowed a 40-pound weighted vest and started pre­par­ing for the Can­di­date Phys­i­cal Abil­ity Test (CPAT), a dif­fi­cult ob­sta­cle course re­quired of all ap­pli­cants.

This spring, Ms. Ward was the only wo­man to grad­u­ate from the 19th Roanoke Val­ley Re­gional Fire & EMS Academy. Al­though an­other grad­u­a­tion is planned for this month, no women are in that class. Ms. Ward will re­main the only wo­man out of 46 peo­ple to be hired as full-time fire­fight­ers in the Roanoke Val­ley in 2016.

Roanoke County Chief Steven Si­mon said that al­though 300 to 400 peo­ple take the CPAT each time it’s of­fered — usu­ally once a year — of­fi­cials see 10 or fewer women dur­ing the re­cruit­ment process.

Roanoke Fire-EMS Chief David Hoback said he re­called only one wo­man pass­ing the last ad­min­is­tered CPAT last spring; by the time she was ap­proached for an in­ter­view, she had taken an­other job.

Re­cruit­ing and re­tain­ing women to the fire ser­vice has been a strug­gle na­tion­ally. In 2014, women ac­counted for just 7 per­cent of fire­fight­ers na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Fire Pro­tec­tion As­so­ci­a­tion.

Roanoke Val­ley de­part­ments re­flect those per­cent­ages. Roanoke Fire-EMS em­ploys 11 women full time out of about 235 uni­formed staff; two of those women are in of­fi­cer po­si­tions. Roanoke County Fire & Res­cue, which has never had a wo­man in lead­er­ship, has four women work­ing full time as fire­fighter-EMTs out of about 162 full-time work­ers. Salem Fire & EMS has one wo­man work­ing as a full-time fire­fighter-EMT out of 57; she also holds a lead­er­ship po­si­tion in the depart­ment as a se­nior fire­fighter.

Salem Fire & EMS Chief John Pril­la­man said re­cruit­ing more women is im­por­tant, not only be­cause some res­i­dents might pre­fer to work with women dur­ing a med­i­cal emer­gency or a fire, but also be­cause res­i­dents need to be able to see their com­mu­nity re­flected in lo­cal de­part­ments.

“When that fire truck pulls up, I think our ci­ti­zens are re­ally look­ing for peo­ple that look like them,” Chief Pril­la­man said. “I think there’s a com­fort fac­tor when you see a male and a fe­male, or two fe­males com­ing off the truck.”

But reach­ing women who are in­ter­ested in the job is a chal­lenge, Chief Pril­la­man said.

In the Roanoke Val­ley, re­cruiters set up booths at job fairs and reach out to col­le­giate ath­letes and at lo­cal gyms, hop­ing to find phys­i­cally fit, qual­i­fied women who are in­ter­ested in pub­lic safety. Of­fi­cials also hope that de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ships with high school stu­dents through an in­tern­ship pro­gram will boost in­ter­est among young women.

“To­day I an­nounced our top pri­or­ity for the up­com­ing ses­sion: emer­gency leg­is­la­tion to fully and im­me­di­ately re­peal the dis­as­trous Road Kill Bill. If this law is not re­pealed, it will be re­spon­si­ble for elim­i­nat­ing nearly all of the most im­por­tant trans­porta­tion pri­or­ity projects across the en­tire state and will wreak havoc on our state trans­porta­tion sys­tem.”

— Mary­land Gov. Larry Ho­gan on Face­book

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