Updated with comments from Downey Fire Chief Mark Gillaspie.
DOWNEY – Supervisor Janice Hahn donned a Wonder Woman headband on July 11 while pressing Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby on efforts to recruit and retain women firefighters and update fire stations to accommodate both men and women.
Of LA County’s 2,866 firefighters, only 45 are women, and the majority of fire stations in LA County cannot accommodate female firefighters.
The three other women of the Board, Supervisors Kuehl, Solis and Barger, also joined Hahn in wearing superhero headbands while discussing the issue with the fire chief.
The discussion came up as the Board considered Hahn’s motion to remodel the Marine Del Rey Fire Station to accommodate both male and female firefighters in locker rooms, dormitories, and restroom facilities.
The Downey Fire Department has never had a female firefighter since its founding Sept. 10, 1957. According to the city of Downey website, Downey FD “consists of about 100 employees.
Fire Chief Mark Gillaspie said the department “places a priority on diversity, striving to reflect its community,” but recruiting qualified female firefighters is difficult.
“Downey Fire Department always seeks the most qualified firefighter candidates. All Downey Fire Department applicants must have completed a state-sanctioned fire academy and be a licensed emergency medical technician and paramedic,” Gillaspie said. “Also, candidates must meet the strictest pre-employment background requirements and comprehensive medical and psychological examinations.
“The department has employed females in field operation assignments over the years. In 1998, the department hired six personnel, one being a female. Weeks into their recruit training, the female candidate resigned for personal reasons. In 2015, two female ambulance operators were hired as emergency medical technicians, assigned to Downey fire stations with firefighters. Both employees later resigned to pursue other employment opportunities. Numerous females interested in the fire service have participated in Downey’s Auxiliary Firefighter Program over the years, volunteering one 24-hour shift per week to gain valuable job experience. Lastly, the department has sponsored women to the local fire academy and/or paramedic school in an attempt to ultimately hire local candidates.
“Currently the fire department is seeking to hire six additional firefighters. The City’s Human Resources Department oversees the fire department recruitment process, soliciting qualified applicants utilizing various recruitment efforts.
“Downey Fire Department’s pool of qualified female applicants is always limited in numbers. Smaller local fire departments such as Downey are challenged to recruit and retain the limited pool of qualified female applicants that meet industry performance standards.
“I am sure Downey’s fire stations are not unlike many of LA County Fire Department’s fire stations regarding today’s gender accommodation standards/requirements. As you know, our fire stations are extremely dated (60 years old), inadequately maintained, and are outgrown. The City is currently attempting to address our fire department infrastructure with the financial support of Downey’s Measure S sales tax. We are currently in the master planning stage to address the stations’ current issues while planning for its future needs. Regardless of the current condition of the fire stations, the department continues to actively seek high-quality female firefighter candidates that are committed to the City of Downey.
“With that, the Downey Fire Department places a priority on diversity, striving to reflect its community.
“A lack of female firefighters is an issue facing fire departments across the country. According to federal labor statistics, New York City employed 10,500 firefighters in 2015, but only 37 were women.
Overall, only 3.4 percent of firefighters nationwide are women, data shows.
The Denver Post examined the lack of gender diversity in the nation’s fire stations in 2014.
Arguments for why there are so few women on the job are common: They don’t want to work in a dangerous, dirty industry, and they just aren’t strong enough to deal with the physical demands, which include wearing up to 125 pounds of gear or carrying unconscious victims down a darkened stairwell, the newspaper reported.
“We’ve tried to recruit women. The reality is for whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to be an attractive job,” said Steve MacDonald, spokesman for Boston’s fire department, which has 18 women out of a force of 1,470.
“None of those arguments really holds water, according to Marc Bendick, an economic consultant who did a study on female firefighters nationwide. He found that men and women who take the physical fitness test known as Candidate Physical Ability Test, developed by fire chiefs around the country, pass at about the same rate as long as the test is administered fairly.
“It’s not every woman in the U.S. who could pass that test,” Bendick said. “But the kind of women who apply for fire jobs, very athletically inclined, they pass. And not every man can pass it either.”