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Into the Fire

Fire agencies have a burning desire to recruit females, with little luck

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Trial and Error

Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan has devoted the past eight years to diversifying his department. He is passionate about getting more women on the city's firefighter force, but he calls those efforts "frustrating" and "challenging."

The Boise Fire Department has 268 firefighters: only one is a woman. At its peak, the department employed four women, but they either retired or left. The first female firefighter for the Boise Fire Department wasn't even hired until 1993. It's a gender makeup reflected in the national average. Doan said about 2.5 percent of city firefighters nationwide are women.

"We've put a lot of time into it, but it takes a long time to turn the tide," he said.

Going through the process to become a firefighter is strenuous. First, there is a written test made up of 100 questions about personality, math, mechanics and English. The test has nothing to do with firefighting but candidates need to score at least 99 percent to move on to the oral exam, which is an interview by a panel of firefighters. They ask why applicants want to be firefighters and what would make them good at it. They watch for certain character traits and look for a strong work ethic.

The process used to include a physical test, but Doan eliminated it in an effort to make recruitment easier.

"When I took the test 26 years ago, it was a lot different," he said. "There was this dummy that was, like, 175 pounds. You had to pick it up, throw it over your shoulder, and run up five flights of stairs and down five flights of stairs. We looked at that and we said, 'How often do you pick somebody up and throw them over your shoulder and run up and down stairs?' Like, zero. We work in teams. You don't carry them over your shoulder because the smoke and hot gases are up high."

After the original physical test was phased out, the Boise Fire Department introduced a more realistic test, which included pulling a dummy to safety, dragging a hose around a corner, crawling through a box and using a sledge hammer to hit a target.

"Then we said, 'Why do we even need that?' Doan said. The second test was dropped, too.

After an aspiring firefighter passes both the written and oral exams, he or she undergoes an FBI background check and visits the fire department doctor for a physical exam to test overall strength, lung capacity and heart condition.

"If you met the minimum medical standards, we would hire you," Doan said.

The process is long and competitive. The written test is offered only every two years and hundreds of hopefuls turn out for a limited number of positions. If an applicant makes it through the testing, he or she is added to a list. When someone from the force retires, the first person on the list is hired.

"[The lack of women] is hurting our department and it's hurting our community" –Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan

In the meantime, Doan is doing everything he can think of to create a more inviting atmosphere for women. In the past few years, he has offered mentorships to women interested in the field and hosted a two-day academy at which 20 women learned more about the job.

"Only a couple of those took the test," Doan said. "You can see our struggle. We got 20 women in there, then, last March, we tested 604 individuals, and four of those were women."

Doan said it isn't a matter of women not being capable of doing the job. They're not getting tripped up by the physical requirements or training. He said most women simply don't consider becoming firefighters.