EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Fewer than 2 percent of full-time firefighters in Rhode Island are female, according to an Eyewitness News analysis of public safety employment data.
There are a total of 1,134,400 firefighters in the United States, but according to the National Fire Protection Association, only 7 percent of them are women. Out of the 20 full-time departments in Rhode Island we surveyed, 1.74 percent of their staff is female.
There are several municipalities that don’t have a single female on their roster, but we were able to talk to two women who work for the same city.
Sharon Corriveau and Katie Moore are two of three female firefighters working for the East Providence Fire Department. They say a lot of progress has been made in recent years, though there’s still more work to be done.
“We’re definitely not the first to be doing this, but we’re the first to be accepted in doing it,” said Moore.
In addition to the three women on the city’s department, there are 103 men. But, the fact that they were dramatically outnumbered was obvious as soon as they started training.
“I felt that I was different just because of my size, but everyone was very, very helpful,” Corriveau recalled. “I knew that I had to present myself in a certain way because I didn’t want to be left behind.”
Corriveau was not left behind, however. In fact, she graduated at the top of her class.
Both she and Moore are relative newcomers to the profession.
“I think that we kill it as women in this department, in any department, we can do the job just as well,” said Moore. “I’m definitely not going to say we do it better, but we all have different things that we excel at.”
Since the first paid female firefighters were hired back in the 1970’s, the number of women in the profession has climbed slowly.
“I think a lot of it is just telling women that they can do it,” said Corriveau. “A lot of women kind of feel pigeon-holed into certain types of careers. It doesn’t seem natural to think of a woman going, ‘I can be a firefighter, I can be a cop, I can do construction, I can do these big, strong things.'”
“We’re told we can do what we want, we’re told we have the same opportunities as men, and we just have to be equally as qualified,” Moore added.
According to the International Association of Women in Fire Services, there are also still a number of barriers that confront females today, ranging from sexual harassment on the job to protective gear and uniforms designed to fit men and fire stations built to accommodate only one gender in sleeping, bathroom, and changing facilities.
“We have four stations. Three of them are designed wonderfully for men and women and one is in the process of being renovated,” Moore said. “And even that one that’s being renovated, everybody is really good about making sure we have privacy.”
There are additional challenges for women that men may not encounter on the job, such as a lack of child care options for workers on 24-hour shifts, uncertainty over behavioral expectations in a mixed-gender workforce, and lack of public support for women’s presence in the fire service.
Both Moore and Corriveau say the biggest challenge for them doesn’t come from their peers, station or equipment, but from the public they serve.
“The worst moments are when you are in a client’s home and they need your help and you want to help,” said Corriveau. “They called 911 and you show up. Usually it’s lifting patients – ‘I don’t want you carrying me.'”
But for every low, there’s a high, especially when people, young and old, look to them as role models.
“Sometimes we’ll take the trucks to schools and then the little kids [say], ‘you’re a firefighter? You drive the fire truck?'” Corriveau said. “It’s like, ‘yes I do, and you can, too.'”
United Women Firefighters believes more resources should be devoted to recruiting females and offering more sufficient training to help women better prepare for the challenges of the physical agility test required to become a firefighter.
Now that they’re on the force, both Moore and Corriveau say it feels like working with your family.
“Even the big guys don’t do the hard jobs on their own,” said Moore. “This department and every department – it’s all about teamwork. We’re a family.”