Women Firefighters Blazing a Trail

Having the ability to lift someone weighing more than 60 kilograms, working at confronting accident scenes and putting your life on the line in the course of duty are just part of the job for firefighters.

And Kat Dunell welcomes the challenge.

As a female she is in a minority in the fire service — women make up about three per cent of career firefighters — but Ms Dunell, a mother of three, doesn’t want special treatment.

“You need to be up to the task if you take on this job,” says Ms Dunell, 44, who has worked with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) in the Western suburbs of Melbourne for 10  years.

The bond between firefighters is close, says  the likeable former scuba diving instructor.

“We’re like a close-knit family, and it’s important to know we have each other’s back.”

Although she would welcome more women in the service, Ms Dunell doesn’t believe standards should be lowered to accommodate a political requirement for gender diversity.

It should be the best person for the job regardless of gender or cultural background.  It is an achievable goal for women to join the fire service and to say that standards need to be lowered in order to do that is insulting to all women, she says.

“It’s important that like every firefighter you get the job on merit, and because you’re capable.”

Lowering standards by removing the order of merit is wrong, says this veteran firefighter.

“We go into some dangerous situations and are very reliant on each other — you need to know you can rely on your crew and your colleagues are capable.”

Car accidents and their traumatic aftermath are a regular feature in a firefighter’s duties.

“Jobs involving children are the hardest,” admits Ms Dunell.  “And talking to people whose loved ones have died is really tough.”

Despite having children and juggling shift-work with her husband, she keeps up her physical training: “You need to be fit to do this job.”

She supports the United Firefighter’s Union of Victoria in their opposition to changes to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) selection process to fast-track women and increase gender diversity.

Only 3 per cent of MFB firefighters are female –compared with more than 40 per cent of ambulance workers and 34 per cent of police.

Women who do qualify for the work need to be up to it, says Ms Dunell.  And existing conditions, including lack of meaningful duties and on shift positions for women firefighters who become pregnant, need to be vastly improved before drafting in new women recruits..

UFU national secretary Peter Marshall agrees, expressing concern over the MFB’s agenda of “promoting an increase in female firefighters by lowering standards”.

“We urge the public to support their firefighters and the union in maintaining the high levels of entrance standards that ultimately someone’s life could depend on,” he says.

Mr Marshall accused the MFB of attempting to cast the union as anti-women, which was untrue. “We are an advocate for increasing diversity within the fire service, and any perusal of our record will show that,” he says.

Source: Working Life