When a female firefighter in Los Angeles County rushes into a burning building to save a life, she must deal with an extra challenge her male counterparts do not face: her uniform.
At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, female firefighters and lifeguards explained to the board how ill-fitting uniforms designed for men restrict their ability to move, are heavier because of unnecessary material and leave gaps that increase their risk of being burned by flying embers or inhaling smoke known to cause cancer.
The supervisors responded by passing a motion, authored by Supervisor Janice Hahn and Chair Lindsey Horvath, that demands the county Fire Department, working with its Women’s Fire League, develop a plan within 60 days to offer female firefighters, paramedics and lifeguards uniforms and personal protective equipment made to fit them.
The supervisors will also send a letter to manufacturers demanding better options for female firefighters.
“It is a safety issue for our women in the Fire Department — it’s also a safety issue for those they’re working to rescue in a split second,” said Hahn, who tried on a uniform before the meeting. “The fact that they have to hike up their pants or do something differently to make a very simple move, I think has been hindering. … I want you to know that we five women on this board, we have your back, and we have your hips.”
Of about 3,000 firefighters, only about 80 are women, according to agency data. That’s up from 45 in 2017, when Hahn and other supervisors expressed dismay at the department’s paltry number.
The lack of women, female firefighters and industry leaders say, has contributed to the lack of uniform options.
“This is an issue of uniform and PPE inequity that we must address as we move forward to not only hire but to retain and promote our fire service women,” Marrone said.
Battalion Chief Sara Rathbun, president of the L.A. County Women’s Fire League, said the department started to see female firefighters only in the 1980s. When she started in 2006, the department had about 20 female firefighters, Rathbun said.
Rathbun said the fire service as a whole is slow to change, as it is “very traditional.”
“That tradition really carries itself and propels itself in wonderful ways that are deep and culturally rewarding,” Rathbun said. “And then there are other ways where it doesn’t serve us, and we’ve got to sort those out.”
Even though Rathbun and her female colleagues are measured for their uniforms, manufacturers take their measurements and apply them to a male pattern, which means the inseam is often too long, and a person’s hips and bust aren’t even considered.
L.A. County firefighters typically wear their station uniforms, and then put on their yellow turnout gear over that uniform during structure fires.
Neither layer is made for the female form, meaning female firefighters have multiple layers that restrict their movements as they jump off docks headed to boat fires, or climb through windows with limited mobility, or advance hose line while crawling on the floor of a burning structure because the air is too hot to stand up.
“For us females, we really do need to focus more on our technique with everything we do — how you pull your hose, how you pull your ladders — and when you have restrictions, especially in the pants, it eliminates the ability to do the proper technique at times,” said L.A. County firefighter/paramedic Siene Freeman, who serves as the Women’s Fire League health and wellness officer. “And so then you run a higher risk of injury, you run a higher risk of not being able to do the job that needs to be done the way it needs to in the same amount of time.”
Danielle McMillon, section chief with the L.A. County lifeguard division, said her uniform includes board shorts designed for men.
When the department recently purchased board shorts made for women, they were only available up to a size 13 — in children’s sizes.
“So whatever measurements they use to make these board shorts, they’re going off like a teen girl,” McMillon said. “When I asked questions, I was told ‘This is industry standard for board shorts.’”
Even as an increasing number of women enter the field, there has been little progress in manufacturers considering female firefighters in how they design gear, said Lynn M. Boorady, who leads the design and merchandising department at Oklahoma State University.
Boorady, who began researching technical gear in 1991, said in her research she found several companies only offer two inseams or sleeve lengths.
Boorady said she was surprised to find that most companies make gear up to size 7X, about a 64-inch waist, but few that make gear smaller than a 30- to 32-inch waist size.
Because of these gear and uniform issues, it’s more common for female firefighters to suffer injuries, Boorady said.
“The No. 1 health issue with firefighters and death of firefighters is heat stress, heat stress that can lead to strokes,” Boorady said. “So you’re already wearing something that’s extremely heavy in extremely hot temperatures, and now it weighs more than it should because it’s oversized. You’re working harder than the next person because what you’re wearing isn’t appropriate.”