Report: ‘Frat house culture’ blamed for lack of female firefighters in Santa Clara County
Two women participate in the San Jose Fire Department's Women's Boot Camp, where prospective women firefighters are introduced to the rigors of the job. Photo courtesy of the San Jose Fire Department.

    Women trying to become firefighters in cities throughout Santa Clara County face gender bias, a hostile work environment, a conscious lack of recruitment and other major obstacles, according to a newly released grand jury report.

    The report on the lack of women firefighters in Santa Clara County offers recommendations for how the male-dominated firefighting profession can take steps to better reflect the county’s demographics by hiring more women.

    Issued by the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury Dec. 17, the report surveyed nearly 1,500 firefighters across four departments and 96 fire stations in the county. It found that only 4% of firefighters were women — far below the 17% target recommended by Women in Fire, an advocacy group.

    The San Jose Fire Department, the largest in the region with 665 firefighters, has the lowest percentage of female firefighters — just 16, or 2%.

    Of the 95 firefighters in Palo Alto, five are women or approximately 5%. Mountain View has seven women among its 70 firefighters, about 10% of its force, and the Santa Clara County Fire Department has 16 women among 235 firefighters or 7%.

    The civil grand jury found it was more difficult for women to be recruited for firefighting jobs because of “insufficient female recruitment, gender bias and lack of inclusivity” among departments.

    The report saw a recruitment system that favored men over women, a hostile work environment for women, a lack of women-specific equipment and complaints from female firefighters about harassment from male firefighters.

    “The current procedures for recruiting and hiring female firefighters in the Santa Clara County region have resulted in maintaining a male-dominated fire service that does not reflect the face of the community it serves,” read the report.

    “For the SCC fire departments to have more female firefighters in the workforce, they must hire more women,” it continued. “This will require a concentrated and continuous effort. Female firefighters should expect appropriate behavior from all colleagues, separate living accommodations for privacy, formal mentoring, opportunity for promotion and properly-fitting work gear.”

    Only 2% of employees at the San Jose Fire Department are women. Source: Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury

    According to a survey conducted by the National Report Card on Women in Firefighting, only 35.6% of women said their department recruits and hires women above its general recruiting efforts. When asked the same question, 65.9% of men firefighters said their department went above its recruiting efforts for women.

    In addition, leadership positions are almost exclusively male. Female firefighters were approximately 15 times more likely to be verbally harassed, 60 times more likely to report sexual advancements against them at work, 23 times more likely to be exposed to pornography at work and 13 times more likely to be hazed compared to their male counterparts.

    Departments also lacked separate changing and living facilities for women, the survey found.

    Not wanted

    The grand jury report cited four specific instances of female firefighters being harassed in the county. In one instance, a female firefighter could not get transferred to a fire station because that station allegedly “did not want women working there.”

    Another firefighter dealt with inappropriate teasing and a third said she heard complaints from the wives of male firefighters about their husbands working closely with women. A fourth firefighter said she didn’t feel supported at the male-dominated firefighters union meeting.

    “How do you change that frat house culture? That’s what we’re wrestling with,” read a statement from Curt Varone, a retired deputy fire chief who served 29 years in the Providence Fire Department in Rhode Island. The county used a quote from him in its report. “Hearts and minds have not changed on this issue and that’s the only way we’re going to see progress.”

    The report suggested fire departments implement a recruitment process specifically for women firefighters, ensure a non-gender biased hiring process, better living and working conditions for women and more mentoring resources for prospective women applicants and issued six recommendations for implementing such policies.

    ‘Good old boys’ club’

    Matt Tuttle, president of San Jose Fire Fighters Local 230, said he believes there could be better recruitment with more funding.

    “For years the fire service has had to combat the ‘frat’ stigma and even a stigma of the fire department being a ‘good old boys’ club,'” Tuttle said. “I believe a lot of that stigma comes from members of the fire department being legacies, for example, sons and daughters of firefighters continuing a family ‘tradition’ of working in the fire service.”

    Tuttle said he’s seen a reduction of firefighter applications due to tighter budgets and losing out to other high-paying jobs in the region, such as tech jobs.

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    Part of San Jose’s efforts to increase women numbers at SJFD includes its SJFD Women’s Boot Camp, which held its second event in March. The boot camp, facilitated by some of the department’s women firefighters, gives participants the opportunity to go through a day in the life of an actual firefighter — everything from grueling physical workouts with the department’s equipment to first aid demonstrations and workshops with women firefighters.

    Although the department said it was too soon to review and implement the recommendations from the grand jury report, it said it is actively trying to ensure SJFD reflects the demographics of the city.

    “The San Jose Fire Department does enforce a zero-tolerance policy for workplace discrimination,” said Erica Ray, the department’s spokesperson. “And we did implement this annual women’s boot camp to give interested candidates the opportunity to be mentored directly by our female firefighters. It really gives them the hands-on access to what it’s like to be a firefighter.”

    The civil grand jury is responsible for examining the administration of county services, hearing resident complaints from county officials and serving as a financial watchdog for public funds, among other duties. It generally releases reports on its findings several times a year.

    “If Santa Clara County can cultivate an environment that leads to hiring more women firefighters, it will find its way to equitable female representation in the county,” said the report. “More diverse departments in the SCC region would encourage other Santa Clara County fire departments to change their view, and the balance of genders may inspire additional counties to do so as well.”

    Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] and Twitter @lloydalaban.

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