Roger Startin, Joint Managing Director of Bristol Uniforms, looks back on the history of female firefighters across the globe and how PPE has evolved to protect them.
There are many examples of heroic female firefighters throughout history, coming from all corners of the globe. Female volunteer firefighters and brigades played an important role in many countries during the First World War. Similarly, thousands of women were recruited into the national fire services of countries such as the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Germany during the Second World War, although usually (but not exclusively) working in administrative or driving positions.
However, it was not until the 1980s that women began to be formally admitted into many national fire services, during peacetime and on an equal footing to men. In 1981, Elizabeth England and Anne Barry completed the NZFS recruit course, becoming New Zealand’s first female career firefighters. The first full-time female firefighters to sign up in the UK were Josephine Reynolds and Sue Batten in 1982. Reynolds began training aged 17 and started her role in Thetford, whilst Batten joined London Fire Brigade aged 30. In the Balkans, Katica Kaja Valecic is thought to be the first professional firefighter in the old Yugoslavia, working as a volunteer firefighter from 1969 and achieving a professional role in 1984. Further afield in Australia, official limits on women joining the fire service were removed in 1984, with Heather Barnes, Denise Butcher, Dawn Maynard and Allison Meenahan joining New South Wales Fire Brigade as the first Australian female career firefighters in 1985.
As a clothing manufacturer for over 200 years and a specialist firefighting PPE manufacturer for the last 60 years, Bristol Uniforms has a long history of providing protection for male and female firefighters across the world. When the first professional female firefighters began to join up throughout the 1980s, Bristol supplied bespoke, made-to-measure sizes on request to fire services needing kit for female crew members.
By the 1990s, the number of female firefighters across the globe was increasing, and with it the requests for sizes to fit them. Bristol Uniforms soon identified a need to introduce female sizes as a standard offering. In 1998, we became the first UK manufacturer, and one of the first in the world, to offer standard female sizes for structural firefighting PPE. Twenty-one female sizes were created as part of our Wessex range to match the male offer, which increased to 28 sizes for both men and women by 2000.
A tragic event in 1996 served as a further catalyst for change within the industry.
Fleur Lombard from Avon FRS became the first female firefighter to die on duty in peacetime Britain. Her death highlighted the outstanding contribution being made by many women to the fire service and prompted the UK government and researchers to investigate how PPE services different body types.
This led to Dr Mandy Stirling’s groundbreaking Anthropometric study which was published in 2002. It demonstrated that female firefighters require different sizes, styling and designs in order to receive the best protection from their PPE, and gave a series of recommendations on how PPE should be adapted to suit the female form. Bristol had already introduced standard female sizes to the market by this stage and was reassured that its kit met with the recommendations, but nevertheless studied the report closely and used it to make adjustments and refine its styles. Soon after, in 2003, we launched our Ergotech and Ergotech Action ranges: a new generation of lightweight PPE, incorporating the latest fabrics on the market, offering 28 sizes as standard for women and 28 for men. Updated versions of our Ergotech Action range remain popular today amongst many fire and rescue services across the world.
The 2002 Stirling report also led to the introduction of the female test manikin, SOPHIE, commissioned by the Health & Safety Executive in 2006. Prior to this, the industry testing centre, BTTG, used a manikin in a male form: RALPH (Research Aim Longer Protection Against Heat). In 2006 RALPH was updated and joined by female-shaped model SOPHIE (System Objective Protection against Heat In an Emergency). Crucially, PPE could now be tested on a female form to ensure full protection for both male and female body shapes.
By 2007, Bristol Uniforms completed an Equality and Diversity offering as part of its tender submission for the Integrated Clothing Project: the UK’s first collaborative procurement scheme for firefighting PPE. The production specifications at the time included developing a co-ordinated range that would be inclusive not only to women but to diverse faith and racial groups. The outcome was a full range of clothing for female and male firefighters, with all female clothing manufactured by Bristol based on anthropometric surveys and cut from specially developed blocks to conform specifically to female physiology.
Bristol’s subsequent PPE ranges for both UK and international markets have continued to offer provision for female and male firefighters. XFlex is Bristol’s flagship structural firefighting range, which features a revolutionary, ergonomic PPE design with distinctive sports styling and lightweight fabric combinations in 28 male and 28 female sizes. Available in variations to meet both CEN and NFPA standards, it is popular with customers across the globe. Similarly, Bristol’s range for the UK Collaborative Framework, launched in 2017 and adopted by the majority of Fire and Rescue Services around the country, provides a full range of PPE in both male and female sizes.
Although the numbers of female firefighters across the globe are still relatively small, they continue to steadily increase as perceptions and opportunities change. A report recently published by the UK Home Office shows that 6.4% of UK firefighters are now women, compared to 3.6% ten years ago. This increase is the result of a concerted effort by the fire industry to promote equal opportunities for women in the service, assisted by Women in the Fire Service UK (WFS), an organisation that has been working to inspire, enable and develop women in the Service since 1993.
In Germany, there are around 30,000 career firefighters and more than a million volunteer firefighters, but very few of them are women. Uwe Raschel is the owner of Fritz Raschel Feuerschutz GmbH, our distributor in Germany. He comments:
‘In Germany, across both the professional and volunteer services, less than 1% of firefighters are currently female. However, things are definitely beginning to change. There is now a greater emphasis on inclusion and diversity from within the fire services, and they are seeing much more interest from women wanting to get involved. I predict that the number will rise rapidly, perhaps even up to 10% in the next five years.’
In Croatia today, women play a significant role in the voluntary fire services, but there are still very few female professional firefighters working in the field, partly due to the rigorous physical challenges that form part of the selection process. Jasmina Kadija has become well known as Croatia’s first female professional firefighter, joining Zagreb Fire Service in 2017. Our distributor in Croatia, Teh-projekt Inzenjering, has been supplying Zagreb Fire Service since 1994.
In Australia, the first National Women in Firefighting Forum was held in 2005, and out of it the organisation Women and Firefighting Australia (WAFA) was born. It has been work¬ing ever since to pro¬mote women in fire¬fight¬ing across Australasia and holds biennial conferences. Bristol Uniforms’ distributor in Australia, PacFire, is a committed supporter and was proud to sponsor the last conference held in 2018.
The Australian Fire & Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) has also been working hard to increase the representation of women across the industry by launching the Male Champions of Change Fire & Emergency Group in 2017. In May it announced that since addressing talent development opportunities, 86% of AFAC groups and networks had experienced a year-on-year increase of female representation.
Today in New Zealand, around 3% of professional firefighters are now women, and 15% of volunteer firefighters. Mark van Dorsten, National Sales Manager for our New Zealand distributor, PSL, comments:
‘Numbers of female firefighters in New Zealand are still relatively low, but this figure is steadily increasing, and we are seeing more orders from customers requesting female sizes.’
Although figures are rising throughout much of the world, there are still some countries that prohibit women joining the fire service. In Russia, women cannot become career firefighters by law, although many volunteer. Similarly, the role is only open to men across some of the Middle East. However, this is gradually beginning to change, with the very first female firefighters being admitted to Sharjah Civil Defence in the United Arab Emirates in 2018. The 15 recruits were selected from around 200 female applicants and underwent a thorough six-month training programme before entering the service.
As time goes on, and more and more women consider firefighting as a career, it is essential that they receive not only equal opportunities in their job roles but equal protection from their PPE. Ultimately, whether male or female, every firefighter deserves to have PPE that fits well, is comfortable, offers the best possible protection and enables the range of movement required to carry out a physically demanding role.
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