IGNACIO – Walking around the Los Pinos Fire Protection District station in Ignacio, the district’s three female firefighters pointed to private showers, bathrooms and bedrooms they can use – a plus for women in a male-dominated profession. Even the emergency kits firefighters take on calls have tampons, they said.
It’s little things like this that can make a big difference for women.
Nationally, the fire service has less gender diversity than law enforcement and the military. Women hold few leadership positions. Male-dominated fields such as these can be rife with institutional barriers, both physically and culturally, for women trying to enter the field. In fact, a lawsuit filed last year against the Los Pinos fire department by a former female employee describes allegations of discrimination in the workplace, raising questions about the agency’s culture.
The former employee, Rachael Harrington-Sanchez, accuses the department of discrimination based on her age, sex and racial identity. More specifically, she alleges someone placed sexually explicit material on her locker, and she was “admonished” not to make “Mexican” food, among other complaints, according to the lawsuit.
In an interview this week with The Durango Herald, the three women employed full time with Los Pinos as firefighters and emergency medical technicians explained when gender does – and doesn’t – play a role in their jobs.
“When I tell people out in the world that I’m a firefighter, I have gotten people like, ‘What do you mean? You’re an ambulance driver,’” said Jen Sokol, 35, who started in the fire service in 2005. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m actually really a firefighter.’”
When their gender does come up, it is mostly with members of the public who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of the fire service, they said. Or sometimes, a female patient may prefer to work with a woman versus a man.
“We’re three really lucky people who found wonderful crews and departments to work for,” said Ellen Southworth, 26, who is two years into the career. “I don’t think that is nationwide.”
Nationwide, women in the fire service have reported resistance when entering the field, like sexual harassment and skepticism about their competence as firefighters, according to Women in Fire, a nonprofit network and advisory group.
Few women hold leadership positions, and only about 150 are chiefs nationwide. By comparison, there are almost 30,000 fire departments in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The first woman to head a career fire department, Chief Rosemary Bliss in California, retired in 2002 after nine years as chief.
Los Pinos has one female board member in an otherwise male-dominated leadership team. The fire chiefs in nearby Durango and Bayfield are also men.
Women might not want to be in a “pioneer role” in the male firefighting tradition, according to Women in Fire. Institutions built around one gender can create barriers, like inadequate policies regarding pregnancy, protective gear designed for men and bunk houses meant for one sex, not two.
Before joining Los Pinos in 2019, Southworth asked about the bunkhouses and whether the district had employed female firefighters.
“I wasn’t ready to be the trailblazer in that,” she said. “I didn’t want to sleep in a bunk room with a bunch of guys. That just wasn’t on my list of interests. ... There’s lots of women who have, and I appreciate them because it’s made it easier for us.”
At Los Pinos, the three firefighters have felt supported as women by both district leadership and their crew mates, they say.
“I definitely believe sexism is out there, especially in workplaces,” said Aubree Wiegert, 22, who first joined the fire service in May. “I haven’t particularly been exposed to that. ... I have friends who have dealt with it, and I think it’s a crappy thing.”
The crews are like family, the women said. They train together, cook together and forge close relationships in life-or-death situations. Some days they might not have any calls, some days they might have seven. Mostly, if you’re physically able to do the job, then you’re part of the team, they said.
“I’ve never felt alienated or put down by my physical abilities,” Wiegert said.
If something did come up, Southworth said she would feel comfortable addressing it.
“If I see something, I can mention it on a crew level. And if we can all learn from it, then I will,” she said.
The women did not comment on the lawsuit facing the district, except to say they have felt supported by the district.
The district has had a change in leadership from when the allegations described in the lawsuit occurred to present. Fire Chief Tony Harwig, who took the reins during summer 2019, said crew members are expected to act appropriately and everyone, regardless of rank, is encouraged to bring up any concerns they have. He focused on hiring as a way to continue building that culture.
“We have to build a culture that says, we don’t talk like that in these doors ... and we hire people like that,” he said.
He has no plans to add any training on gender issues and awareness in the workplace in response to the lawsuit.
“Inside this department, we don’t see gender,” Harwig said. “If that person is truly the best employee that tested and got promoted to that position, what does gender have to do with it in the fire service?”
Currently, the district does not hold any trainings that cover gender issues, said Greg Childress, division chief in charge of training. That is partially because some research indicates such trainings have limited effectiveness, he said.
Los Pinos crews do visit the Southern Ute Museum as part of a diversity training. Officers have discussed inclusion and appropriate behavior during monthly meetings, which serve as an informal opportunity to remind staff members about expectations and address any issues, Childress said.
For Southworth, Wiegert and Sokol, the fire service is a way to help people who are experiencing the worst day of their lives. For them, the job is about problem-solving, building the relationships and the excitement of responding to calls.
Gender has not been an issue, but Southworth said it is an important discussion to be having – particularly to let other women know it is a job they can do, too.
“Women are coming, historically, from a place of not working. Entering the workforce has brought up a lot of sexism,” Southworth said. “Just showing up, and doing our job well every day is what is going to continue to make progress.”