Breaking down the gender imbalance and shaping the new norm in firefighting was the theme for a Women and Firefighting Australasia (WAFA) conference held in New Zealand’s capital Wellington earlier this month.
Alice Lavender, a member of the Medowie Rural Fire Brigade and one of 11 NSW RFS women to attend the 200-person strong conference, said while much had been achieved in women’s firefighting there was more work to be done.
The 34-year-old Medowie mother-of-two children said she joined the RFS 18 months ago as a means of giving back to the community and to challenge herself outside of her paid job as an administrator.
“Currently women make up approximately 22 per cent of the RFS volunteer workforce and only 3-5 per cent in the fire and rescue and metropolitan workforce,” said Lavender, who earlier in the year was part of the crew that fought two of the Port’s largest bushfires at Salt Ash and Masonic Road.
“My time in the RFS has been relatively short, so it was a great opportunity for me to network with other far more experienced female firefighters.
“Discussion [at the conference] centred around ways of increasing women’s presence in the industry, and embracing diversity of gender and culture by encouraging and mentoring women to breakdown the stereotypes.
“This has been such a male dominated industry over the years and we need to look at basic things such as ensuring women’s uniform and personal protection equipment are available and buildings are equipped with sufficient female toilets and change rooms.
“Another area to be explored was the incidence of sexual harassment and bullying. I have never experienced this but the topic was discussed at length with some women giving their accounts of harassment.”
Lavender stressed that the conference, which she described as a “wholesome and fulfilling experience”, was not a means to put men down, but rather to pull men along with the changes so that everybody gains.
“We want to acknowledge the hard work of both men and women before us, but it is just as important that we don’t pull the ladder down behind us, we want to work together not in isolation,” said Lavender.
“Women can do many of the specialist and leadership roles as men have traditionally done, as well as some of the manual labour, like working chainsaws.
“Fitness can be a factor in the physical activities, and there are a variety of other roles women can undertake including in the fields of communication and community engagement.”
Lavender said that the conference had provided her with the confidence to return to Medowie, which has 25 per cent female personnel, as an emerging role model for young women interested in a career in firefighting.
She said she looked forward to meeting with females interested in volunteering their time as a firefighter and passing on her life experiences.
The conferences are held every two years with the next to take place in Adelaide.