The fire service in the Houston metro area is about to receive an influx of female applicants. That’s fine with me; I will state unequivocally that I support women’s rights in the fire service. What’s not fine is why, all of a sudden, a lot more women will be applying for fire jobs. It seems that Houston Community College, responding to controversy over alleged sexual harassment at the Houston Fire Department, will be running an all-female fire academy this fall. Word on the street (stressing that this is UNCONFIRMED) is that all the instructors will be females as well.
I’m no law talkin’ guy, and I am a big white guy, but this causes my eyebrows to arch villainously in perplexity. Can a state organ discriminate this way? Smart money says the courts will weigh in on the matter before it’s all over with.
What I am is a fire officer and my chief concern here, the one with which I am familiar, is the imperative to bring people together into a cohesive small unit. Unity of purpose, mutual support, and familiarity to the point of prediction are important to company effectiveness and efficiency. Part of the point of an academy is to strip away or soften pretensions and pridefulness, self-definition and legacy identities, so that when a cadet becomes a probie, he or she is ready to learn and mesh. A females-only academy class does less per se to strip away that self-definition than would an integrated class. This will make that more difficult, or at least delayed, because these cadets will likely never be on an all-female crew. It will disrupt that normal and useful process because the first few months of intensive introduction to the fire service (a very formative time) will be defined by maintaining identities other than “junior member.”
Perhaps a more sinister, and long-term, effect will enter into play as a result of this effort. How are women to win over men, most of whom are probably on the fence about female presence in the firehouse, if they embark on a distinct and blatantly separate path from the outset?
Women are in the fire service to stay. Exigencies of safety, effectiveness, efficiency, ethics, and honor all compel us to make sure ALL junior members are wholly integrated to our companies. Even men of goodwill and open minds will find that more difficult because of this setback, encountered unknowingly, so early in so many careers.