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Safety not gender drives protective gear adjustments

July 2006 - Ontario - With more women joining fire departments, the questions arises: do they have the right protective gear?

December 14, 2007
By TONY MAXWELL

July 2006 – Ontario – With more women joining fire departments, the questions arises: do they have the right protective gear?

For Andy McIntosh, fire chief of the Orangeville Fire Department an hour northwest of Toronto, properly fitting gear is a safety issue, not a gender issue.  It doesn’t matter who you are, male or female, your gear needs to fit.
Colleen Adams, Orangeville’s first full-time female firefighter, says she has had the full support of her fire chief and colleagues on the issue of gear. Adams was the first firefighter in Orangeville to be custom- fit for a breathing apparatus mask.

“I asked for it because I noticed air leaks with the standard sizes,” she said.

In the end, the request was not a big deal.

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“Some of the guys had come from other departments where they already had custom- fit (masks),” she says, “so they were already familiar with it.”

Now, as of this year, all of her colleagues are going to receive custom- fit air masks.

Chief McIntosh emphasizes, however, that safety, not gender, is driving the evolution to more custom fit gear. “We treat them as firefighters, not male or female,” McIntosh said.

At Orangeville, that means ensuring each firefighter is custom- fitted to their breathing apparatus masks, bunker suit, gloves, boots … right down to the dress uniform.

“We wouldn’t expect somebody to just get a bunker suit off the rack,” said McIntosh.

“A bunker suit that doesn’t fit can be real dangerous,” Adams says. 

In the past, most firefighters have been able to get by with standard sizes, S, M, L and XL.

“When I joined twenty 20 years ago,” he said, “people just weren’t as aware of safety.  Now they are more aware of the dangers … and you have to take precautions.”

Suppliers have been accommodating, too.

“Now they come here and fit you to make sure,” Adams said.  “Because some people may think a mask fits fine and they’ll say ‘no, there’s a gap somewhere’.”

Custom-fitting does cost a bit more, McIntosh acknowledged, but in comparison to the safety benefits it’s well worth it. His only concern is for departments, especially smaller volunteer forces, that may not have the budgets to afford custom gear.

For his own department, though, McIntosh sets a high standard. “A fire is a fire is a fire. I would expect our force to be just as well equipped as in downtown Toronto.”

As for his fellow fire chiefs and how they’re adjusting gear requirements for female crew, McIntosh “hopes today’s modern chief is up to date on this. If they’re not, they better get there, because it’s the way of the future.”
Adams and her husband Sean Pryce are both firefighters for Orangeville.  Since neither is in a supervisory position to the other, they are allowed to serve on the same shift.

“In this case we’re able to accommodate it,” McIntosh said, “so it’s not a problem.”

Adams has been on the force full-time for two years.  Before that she was a volunteer for five years. She returned to duty in mid-June from a maternity leave.