Virginia fire departments try to recruit, retain women
Sparking interest has been persistent struggle
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.
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