Fighting fire with females


By Sean Berry
October 3, 2004
The Sun-Herald


Fits in: Eugenie Thompson is among 3 per cent of women challenging the image of firefighting as a profession for men only.
Photo: Anthony Johnson

Eugenie Thompson is among the mere 3 per cent of NSW's 3214 professional firefighters who are women. And only 10 per cent of people who apply to work in the brigades are female.

The situation, which academic Dave Baigent says is international, will be the subject of a five-year University of Western Sydney study.

"We are going to interview professional and part-time women firies throughout Australia to gauge their experiences and attitudes," Dr Baigent said. "Potentially, we will put in place levers for change in levels of recruitment of women into the fire services."

He said fire services were fighting stereotypes and images that other industries had managed to overcome.

"There's been a traditional image of firefighters being men," he said.

"As women have become less tied to the home they have gained access to what have been considered non-female organisations, [but] that's not been very successful in the fire service.

"I was 30 years in the London fire service and 10 years in academia and I can see no reason why women can't undertake this work."

Ms Thompson, 29, of Moorebank, a level-two firefighter, spent several years working in an office for the fire brigade before she realised she could make the jump into a firefighting role.

"I started in 1994 as a trainee in the office and worked in various departments until I thought, 'I can do that'," she said. "I wasn't terribly big and strong but realised you don't have to be huge, although you do need a certain amount of skill and ability. I started as a firefighter in December 2002."

After 16 weeks at the training college in Alexandria, where there were only two women in her class of 20, Ms Thompson was posted to Guildford Fire Station in western Sydney.

"I have no regrets - it's a good atmosphere and it's like a family," she said. "It takes time - like in any job when you are the new person - to fit into the group but, once you do, it's fine."

Recruits are paid $780.32 weekly and firefighters with four years' experience earn $1005.52.

NSW Fire Brigades spokesman Brian Woods said the increasing number of female firefighters was the brigade's biggest challenge.

"We have had the Women On Wheels campaign where females from various organisations went through bush areas to let them know about the opportunities and we target women through posters put up in fitness centres to attract women who are already fit," he said.

Ms Thompson said women needed to realise what they were capable of.

"They seem to think they just aren't capable of it, but we are."