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CAFC celebrating women in the fire service

Progress has been made with diversity in Fire, but more still needs to be done

March 22, 2023 
By Elena De Luigi

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) is recognizing Canada’s 14,000 women in the fire service in honour of International Women’s Day in March. The organization’s census states that 3,000 are career firefighters and 11,000 are volunteer.

These figures include the Women Chiefs and Company Officers Network of Canada, and the provincial and territorial groups representing women in Fire, among others.

In a joint letter to female firefighters, Deputy Chief Keri Martens and Chief Ken McMullen said the fire fighting industry is “not there yet” when it comes to diversity, but progress is still being made.

“Five years ago, the first woman fire chief was elected to the CAFC board of directors and there were 13 women fire chiefs. Today, at least 68 fire departments are led by women, from some of the country’s largest metro departments to some of the most rural and remote departments,” Martens and McMullen said in a joint statement.


A report published by the CAFC in September 2020 states that despite there being approximately 152,650 firefighters in Canada, only about 4.4 per cent of them (career and volunteer) are women. The report also notes that female firefighters are “significantly underrepresented” in the fire service compared to other emergency services such as police and paramedics.

Women make up 20 per cent of police officers or detectives, 20 per cent of military members, 21 per cent of paramedics or EMTs, and about 50 per cent or higher of lawyers, doctors and veterinarians.

The CAFC report suggests that some researchers believe the demanding physical nature of fire fighting is the reason why there are fewer women in the fire industry. However, other findings from researchers in Canada, the United States and Australia suggest that other factors such as long-term health impacts, gender dimorphism, ill-fitting gear, a lack of appropriate equipment and facilities, and on-the-job discrimination and sexual harassment are playing a key role in keeping women out of fire fighting.

Some analysts have also argued that the fire service is steeped in tradition and formalized paramilitary relationships, with many similarities in structure, culture, and operations to military organizations.

“Much like military groups, fire departments have formed distinctive cultural characteristics as a direct result of the need of such teams to be prepared to perform high-risk, highly interdependent frontline operations,” reads the report. “In doing so, the service has deliberate and powerful socialization systems and processes which create tight-knit communities that value strength, courage, and loyalty, but which can be resistant to change and in which in-groups undoubtedly develop.”

This type of traditional, “tight culture” has served the fire fighting community well in the past, in the sense that team members rely heavily on each other in life-threatening fire and rescue operations. But despite this reliance still existing today, the nature of the fire service has changed over the last 30 to 40 years ¬– with many difficult adjustments – since women began being hired and accepted into the fire service.

The answer to why women are significantly underrepresented in the fire service remains unclear, but since only a handful of studies have looked at the everyday experiences of female firefighters on the job, there is a distinct lack of knowledge on the subject, especially in Canada.

Currently, there are increased calls for community safety, public service, high quality emergency medical care and non-emergency assistance, which has forced the fire service to develop specialized skills such as interpersonal communications and interaction with diverse people. It has also caused a recognition that fostering an inclusive and respectful workplace is essential for a psychologically safe, mentally healthy, and positive work environment.

To encourage participation from more women in fire, the CAFC is rolling out two scholarships and a bursary. The scholarships and bursaries being offered to females in Fire include the Fire Rescue Canada Women in Fire Scholarship, Government Relations Week Scholarship, and the Executive Chief Fire Officer and Aspire Diversity Bursary.

Regarding the organization’s advocacy, policy and training work, the CAFC said it is committed to continuing to look to women for leadership, advice, and guidance on issues ranging from properly fitting gear to data collection, to firefighter cancer and mental health, culture, training and education and even the way fire departments are built or designed.

“A sustainable fire and emergency management sector is only possible if we can reflect the full diversity of the society we serve,” said Martens and McMullen in the press release.

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