VANCOUVER -- They’ve been accepted and hired at fire departments in the region for more than 25 years, but the number of women fighting fires in Metro Vancouver remains miniscule – about three per cent of the workforce in most communities.

CTV News Vancouver contacted fire departments to ask for their numbers, recruitment strategies and other details, speaking with six fire chiefs about the scant number of women in the ranks, as well as several women firefighters in different communities.

While the BC Wildfire Service sees women consistently make up one-third of its forestry firefighters, municipal fire departments have a dismal record. 

White Rock and Pitt Meadows don’t have a single woman in their ranks at the moment, though they say they did until recently. Pitt Meadows only has four career firefighters in total, with the rest working in a paid-on-call capacity with significant turnover rates; White Rock is half career, half paid-on-call.

Langley Township (2.3%), Coquitlam (3%), Vancouver (3.1%) Burnaby (3.2%), Port Moody (3.5%), New Westminster (3.5%), Delta (3.6%), Abbotsford (3.7%) and Maple Ridge (4.2%) have struggled to attract female applicants despite outreach programs and initiatives like Camp Ignite, which are run by women who are professional firefighters and target high school students.

Richmond has been the most successful city in the region, with women making up 9 per cent of its overall frontline workers. Women have made up 17 per cent of the department's hires since a scandalous period that ended with a revamping of its hiring process in 2007.

The department’s current fire chief, Tim Wilkinson, is adamant that many women are just as capable as men, whether it comes to the physical tasks or the mindset and cognitive skills required to be a firefighter. He says applicants need to see a diverse and welcoming department in order to be interested in a career in the fire service.

"I would say intention [to hire more women] is not enough,” he said. “You have to put a plan to it, you have to commit to it and it's a long-term plan. It's a 10-, 15-year plan to change your culture, to change your workforce, and you have to dedicate to it.”

Richmond Fire Rescue has physical requirements for acceptance, but relies more heavily on interviews and ridealongs to get a sense of who would be a good fit. They also don’t require a diploma in firefighting, preferring to train on the job.

Vancouver’s fire chief says his department has had a direct correlation between the percentage of women applying and hired. Darryl Reid says after sitting around the 3 or 4 per cent mark for years, the hiring of a new recruiting chief highlighting diversity and inclusivity has seen this year’s recruitment hit 8 per cent women.

“And it's not just women,” he told CTV News. “We want the department to move toward mirroring our community."

Canada’s foremost expert weighs in

When it comes to who can and can’t do the job, there’s a public perception that only tall and exceptionally fit men can be firefighters.

“Physicality is an important component to the job, but it's only one aspect of the job," says Jim Carter, now an instructor in Simon Fraser University’s kinesiology program and a long-time instructor in the fire college program at the Justice Institute. He also conducted thousands of physical tests for incoming recruits at various departments during his 26 years in Port Coquitlam Fire Rescue; he retired from firefighting as a captain.

"One of the misconceptions: when you become a firefighter you think you're going to be fighting fires every day, but it's not really the case," he said. “It's a very versatile job. Probably 65, 70 per cent of your calls are medical emergencies, you do confined-space rescue, you do high-angle rescue, you do automobile extrication – so fighting fires is only a small portion of the job."

Carter says many municipalities have changed the physical entrance test to reflect the kind of tasks firefighters need to do, rather than overall fitness. He – along with several chiefs – also points out that while there’s a physical standard to meet upon entering the service, there’s not a requirement to maintain that level or any other level once a recruit becomes a permanent member.

But the strongest person isn’t always the best one for the job in an emergency.

"Diversity is good. When you show up at a fire scene it's nice to have different people that have different strengths and weaknesses. You don't want to show up to an emergency scene and open up your tool box and have 10 hammers. It's nice to have different people that can do different things," says Carter.

He says compact firefighters are better suited to confined space rescues, for example, and as firefighters move up through the ranks their job becomes less physical and more analytical and focussed on problem-solving, so he encourages recruiters to consider those traits in addition to assessing whether an applicant is likely to take needless risks.

“A lot of people see it as a very physical job, but many women are very capable,” said Russel Jenkins, the fire chief in the Township of Langley. “It’s unfortunate we don’t get more applicants.”

Wilkinson points out firefighters who speak different languages are a huge help in his community, with medical calls and rescues making up many of Richmond firefighters' duties.

"In my opinion, it's a person who can troubleshoot, it's a person who learns,” says Wilkinson. “It's behaviours that make great firefighters, not physical attributes."

Why aren’t women applying?

When CTV News asked chiefs from Langley Township, Pitt Meadows, New Westminster, Richmond and Vancouver about women in their ranks, they were all earnest and sincere in their desire to have a more diverse workforce and were generally stumped as to how to do that.

When we asked several female firefighters what they felt kept more women from joining their ranks and most said that despite outreach efforts, they believe many women simply don’t consider it as a career option. None of them wanted to speak publicly for various reasons, but several said they feel supported and welcomed at their jobs.

But they also acknowledged that stories about toxic masculinity, workplace bullying and an attitude hostile to women, as well as the kind of behaviour alleged at Vancouver Fire Rescue, led some women rule out the fire service as a career option.

Deputy Chief of Operations for Surrey Fire Rescue, John Lehmann, says he wants his community to start emulating some American cities, which are starting to encourage elementary-aged girls to consider firefighting, rather than wait until high school when many already have other career aspirations.

“I think it needs to be a regional approach and strategy,” he says, pointing out no matter how big and strong a firefighter is, there will always be a task too big to manage alone.

“We’re looking for people with good critical thinking and decision-making -- that’s the firefighter of the future.”

This article is part three in a series. Read the previous articles: