Wood, L. (2002) A Sociological Exploration of the Occupational Culture of the Fire Service and Women’s Place Within It , unpublished MSc Sociology by Research; University Of Edinburgh.
Graduate School of Social and Political Studies
Department: Social and Political Studies
2.1 Research design
2.2 Data Collection
2.3 Sampling Issues
2.3.1 Brigade choice
2.3.2 Station choice
2.3.3 Selection of interviewees - purposive/voluntary sampling
2.3.4 Questions of rank
2.4 Presentation of study: practical and ethical considerations
2.4.1 Gate-keepers and negotiating access
2.4.2 Introducing the study to the Brigade
2.4.3 Women researching male dominated occupations
2.4.5 Final Presentation
3) Entering the Fire Service
3.1 The appeal of the job p.18
3.2 Pathways into fire-fighting: the implications of previous work
3.3 Positive action open days for women
3.4 Recruitment standards and the entry of women
4) Women's and Men's Integration
4.1 Experience of Training P.27
4.1.1 Military Culture
4.1.2 Group/Individual Dynamics
4.1.3 Women's experiences at Gullane
4.1.4 How the Training Course prepares fire-fighters for work in the Service
4.2 Becoming part of the watch: the integration process
4.2.1 The demise of Initiation Rituals
4.2.2 The experience of women
5) Watch Culture
5.1.1 How fire-fighters work - call-outs p.42
5.1.2 The 'craft ethic' and women
5.1.3 Stand-down activities
5.2 Interaction on the watch: the function of humour
5.2.1 Alleviating boredom
5.2.2 Sexual humour
5.2.3 Humour as a means of reducing performance pressure
5.2.4 Black humour
5.3 Promotion and rank culture
6) Conclusion p.55
Appendix 1: Horizontal and Vertical Segregation statistics
Appendix 2: Interview Schedule
Appendix 3: Scottish Brigade staff levels by gender
Appendix 4: Letter presenting the study
Appendix 5: 'Fire-fighters invited to take part in research project' flyer
Appendix 6: Description of physically demanding tasks at Gullane
Appendix 7: Physical proximity/shared sleeping quarters
Appendix 8: An example of a physical initiation rite
Appendix 9: Fairness and Equality Issues taken too far? A discussion
Appendix 10: How fire-fighters work at the scene of a fire, a description
The primary aim of the study was to explore the experiences of women who join the fire service. This is a salient topic at the present time as the fire-service is undergoing a period of transition. Fire brigades all over the UK are involved in recruitment drives/positive action programmes to increase the proportion of women in the service. The Fire Service in England admitted the first female in 1982 whereas the first whole-time female fire-fighter in Scotland was employed in 1993. The history of women in fire-fighting roles is a short one and so it is no surprise that women and ethnic minorities are drastically under-represented in the fire-service. Indeed, they constitute roughly 0.9 and 1 percent of the workforce respectively (The Independent 17/9/99). As a non-traditional career choice for women, fire-fighting is particularly interesting. It is classified as a skilled manual occupation, requires strength and physical fitness and involves a high degree of danger. This is in contrast to job characteristics associated with typically female jobs, identified as: ‘clean, safe, physically undemanding, repetitive, boring and lacking in mobility’ (Bradley 1989 p.9). For this reason alone, women are likely to experience different kinds of challenges and difficulties to their male counterparts upon entering the fire service.
My interest in this topic comes from personal experience. My father who is a fire-fighter strongly encouraged me to join after graduation. Disenchanted with tedious, temporary call-centre work, becoming a fire-fighter seemed an appealing if remote, prospect. My new-found ambition was met with incredulity by friends and family but undeterred I attended a ‘positive action’ open day in Edinburgh. This was great fun and I did consider joining, but in the end decided not to.
In the early stages of the research process it became clear that there was a dearth of information regarding women in the Fire Service. One book was unearthed on this topic, an American study exploring gender and race. Ultimately the author argued that it was easier for ethnic minority men to be accepted than women, and that the ultra-masculine culture of the Fire Service posed the most obstinate barrier to women’s career progression. Similarly, the Home Office pointed to Fire Brigade culture as the biggest deterrent to making the Service more representative. It was stated that major change would have to be instigated in order to ‘embrace a real commitment to equality and fairness’ (Thematic Review p.3 1999). Indeed, the Fire Brigade has been described as one of the ‘last bastions of white, male laddish culture’ (The Guardian 17/9/99). This conclusion resonates with a recurrent theme in the reviewed literature on women in male dominated occupations, namely: the importance of informal work cultures that serve to inhibit women’s career progress.
In light of this emphasis it was decided that women’s position within the Fire-Brigade would be explored in terms of workplace culture, the extent to which they have become accepted and the challenges they are confronted with. Inevitably, it was thought women’s experience would differ from that of their male counterparts and, to find out how different their experience of employment is, emphasis was placed on the perceptions and attitudes of male and female fire-fighters towards the job, workplace culture and their future prospects.
The study focussed on the following questions:
1)What occupational culture(s) exist in the fire service? 
2)How are these supportive or detrimental to the acceptance and progression of women in the fire service?
3)How are they changing as a result of the entry of women (i.e: becoming more inclusive and accepting or more resolutely masculine)?
4)What attempts (if any) are made by men to preserve existing workplace cultures?
In order to answer these questions, twelve, semi-structured individual interviews were carried out with male and female fire-fighters of varying lengths of experience. The interviews were complemented by observation in order to understand the aspects of workplace culture that the respondents themselves may have been ‘unconscious’ of. Chapter two details the methodological concerns that shaped the study
Ultimately it was discovered that the culture of the Fire service is one in which women’s rightful presence in fire-fighting roles is questioned, and their full participation in aspects of informal work culture proscribed.
Chapter three deals with entry into the Fire Service, in terms of the appeal of the job and the gender specific pathways into fire-fighting. Positive action open days are discussed with reference to the ways in which they have created resentment towards women in the Service. Furthermore, the belief that standards are being lowered to facilitate the entry of women, and that issues of fairness and equality have been 'pushed too far' are explored in terms of their reversal of the notion that women are discriminated against. By this reckoning, it is men and not women who are the vulnerable party.
Chapter four discusses women’s and men’s integration in the context of the training school and station life. It is argued that women’s transition from the school to the watch is more complex and is characterised by less immediate acceptance than their male counterparts. This leads to a discussion of men’s response to women’s entry, whilst recognising that we cannot talk about ‘men’ as a homogenous group. A number of different responses are identified including those who facilitate women’s entry by acting as ‘champions of equality’, those who actively sabotage women’s career progression and those whose attitude towards women’s entry is connected with a sense of loss regarding the demise of the old culture. For those in the last category the loss of the old culture is lamented because with it went certainties regarding what could be considered acceptable and unacceptable forms of speech and behaviour. On a positive note though it is argued that contact with individual women on the watch can erode sexism.
Finally, chapter five discusses some of the informal aspects of watch culture and the ways in which they exclude women. Firstly, it is argued that a ‘craft ethic’ is in operation in which practical activities, extraneous to the demands of the job are venerated and which women (due to early socialisation experiences and non-manual work backgrounds) are less able to participate in. Similarly, the ways in which stand-down activities resemble male-bonding sessions are explored alongside discussion of the established style of interaction, characterised by combative ‘verbal contests’ which many non-traditional newcomers may be unused to. The fact that women’s ability/competency may be under closer scrutiny than their male counterparts is discussed although it is argued that being slightly outside of watch culture may actually be conducive to formal career progression and so in this sense, women may well be the ideal candidates for promotion. Indeed, the culture of the Service is one in which formal career advancement is looked down on and there is an alternative definition of success, characterised by the cultivation of genuine friendships and being practically good at the job. Ultimately, it is argued that actually ‘belonging’ in watch culture may be a more difficult task for women to achieve than formally progressing through the ranks.
It is hoped that these findings will facilitate understanding of the challenges women face in terms of their retention and progression within the Service.
A key premise of the study is that women’s experience of work within the Fire Service cannot be understood without exploring the experience of their male counter-parts, who have been instrumental in creating workplace culture. Thus the goal of the research was to interpret and explore the beliefs and values of fire-fighters and to understand this culture. The assumption underlying my research was that workers themselves play a key role in determining the nature of workplace culture.
By looking at both men and women, the extent to which experiences converge and differ could be explored. The systematic comparison of gender allows concepts to emerge and gives depth to the findings. However, it was recognised that it is difficult and not always appropriate to make research truly comparative, in terms of controlling for different ‘variables’ (for example, education, rank etc.). There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that females attracted to employment within the Fire Service tend to be better educated than their male counterparts. Even when different issues are taken into consideration, it is possible that personality and temperament may be more salient than gender in determining one’s acceptance.
Ethical reasons also underpinned the decision to take into account both male and female fire-fighter’s experiences, since it was thought that focussing solely on women who are already highly visible, would magnify their ‘token’ status and emphasise their divergence from the mould of ‘model’ fire-fighter. This concern influenced the presentation and planning of the research.
To answer the research questions it seemed that qualitative individual interviews were the
best choice for exploring the lived experience of fire-fighters. Additionally, this decision was shaped by the fact that previous studies have relied heavily on the survey. Indeed, the Assistant Inspector of the fire service described the current state of research on fire-fighting as one of ‘death by questionnaire’. In this period of transition, brigades are constantly being assessed, and it was reckoned that another questionnaire would be met with apathy. The interviews were open-ended to facilitate free expression, but semi-structured (see appendix 2) so comparisons could be made. Interesting issues that arose were explored to allow important themes to emerge and comprehend the key issues as identified by the respondents themselves. The interviews took between 45 minutes to 1 hour and were taped after permission to do so had been granted. They explored a number of issues including:
the appeal of the job
experiences of training
aspects of job satisfaction/dissatisfaction
changes within the Fire Service, in terms of making it more diverse
achieving a work/life balance
Crucially though, interviews were contextualised by looking at aspects of life history (Elder 1981).
A few pilot interviews informed the content of subsequent interviews although this didn’t result in a ‘concrete’ schedule. The process was iterative, with each interview affording insights that were investigated further. In total twelve interviews were conducted.
Negotiating an appropriate time for interviews was a key concern in this study as the Fire Service is an important emergency service in which fire-fighters have to be ready for action 24 hours of the day, everyday. Those in the Service work a 42-hour week with duties divided between day and night shifts (followed by 4 days off). Convenient times had to be negotiated with the brigades in question although it is recognised that the atmosphere and what was observed in the stations was largely governed by the time at which I attended. The majority of the interviews took place early in the evening just before official stand-down when fire-fighters would normally be engaged in their daily equipment checks and drills. Night-shift is rather more relaxed than the day-shift since fire-fighters go on stand-down (once all of the obligatory tasks have been completed) at around 10 ‘o’ clock. The more relaxed atmosphere possibly made the interviews less formal than they would have been had they taken place during the day. Three of the interviews however took place on a Sunday afternoon (when fire-fighters stand-down earlier than usual). Participating fire-fighters were on duty and because of this, a few of the interviews were interrupted by call-outs. Luckily though these turned out to be false alarms, and I was able to resume the interviews as soon as the fire-fighters returned.
Individual interviews were complemented by observation (not participant) to help understand the ways in which fire-fighters work and communicate, revealing typical forms of interaction. This was considered important for understanding the subtleties of workplace culture, which could not be explored via interview. Indeed respondents, who are immersed in the culture, may be ‘unconscious’ of certain aspects of it. As Bulmer notes ‘institutionalised norms and statuses’ may be best investigated by interview whereas incidents and certain types of behaviour are better understood via observation (1983 p.49).
As I was unable to attend emergency situations with fire-fighters, drill practice (mock emergency situations in preparation for actual incidents) was considered the next best thing. However, in reality opportunities were dependent on the stations in question and had to be negotiated after initial contact was made.
My first real opportunity to observe fire-fighters on stand-down took place on a Sunday afternoon. The interviews, which had been arranged a couple of weeks beforehand, happened to coincide with a particularly nail-biting game of football during the world cup. This was a stroke of luck in that, after the first interview, I was invited to join the watch in the mess room to watch the football (‘so that you can find out about the culture and that’). In reality no one wanted to be interviewed when the football was on. This gave me an opportunity to chat to the fire-fighters on a more casual basis and to observe the ways in which they interacted with each other. The fact that the football was on and provided a focal point for watch interaction (I believe) detracted from my presence, thereby reducing the ‘researcher effect’ (whereby those who are being observed behave differently because they are being observed).
Similarly, I was able to observe fire-fighters testing/playing with some special equipment in the drill yard. The probationary fire-fighter who I was to interview was strapped to a ladder extended to a height of 100ft and was being turned around. A crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle and were discussing the way the machinery worked. Although this observation experience was short, it revealed an enjoyment of and playful attitude towards such machinery.
2.3.1 Brigade Choice
There is no national Fire Service and brigades are run separately. In Scotland there are 8 brigades under control of a ‘Fire-Master’. Initially it was decided that Lothian and Borders would be solely selected as they are convenient and describe themselves as being at the ‘forefront of Equal Opportunity developments’ (Service Plan 2001). They are indeed the largest pro-rata employer of ethnic minorities and women in Scotland, and perhaps also in England and Wales. While women constitute less than 1% of the total number of full-time fire-fighters employed in Scotland (a figure consistent with the rest of the UK), within L&BFB they constitute 5% of the workforce. Indeed, L&BFB employ roughly 41% of the total number of full-time female fire-fighters in Scotland (see appendix no 3). Recent statistics show that within Lothian and Borders there are now 49 female fire-fighters employed in a workforce of 950 (The Scotsman 27/9/01).
It could be argued that my study will be affected by regional bias and may not be representative of the wider situation in the UK, however L&BFB was chosen because of its unique status. Schofield argues that by looking at sites that are at the ‘leading edge of change’, we increase the chances that the issues raised will be relevant to other sites in the future (1993 p.214). With government pushes to increase female recruitment in the Fire Brigade, it seems that the challenges faced by L&BFB in its attempts to diversify are likely to apply to other brigades. This approach is in line with Schofield’s proposal of a redefinition of ‘generalisability’ for qualitative research; she argues that that the temporal, specific context of research should be recognised. Advocating the concept of ‘fit’, she argues that understanding the extent to which one situation mirrors another is useful in qualitative research but that the ability to do this is dependent upon ‘thick’ description.
The ability to generalise from this research is also aided by the ‘multi-site’ nature of the study (Schofield 1993 p.211). Indeed, the study ‘gate-keeper’ recommended widening the scope of the research (from Lothian and Borders only) to include Central Scotland Fire Service. The rationale behind this was that the findings would be likely to have wider applicability if they included more than one brigade. Furthermore, focussing on two brigades was thought to be preferable, as it would lessen the strain on personnel caused by allowing fire-fighters time off in order to be interviewed.
Fire-fighters were drawn from three stations, one in Central and two in Lothian and Borders. Although just one station was visited in Central, fire-fighters were drawn from two different watches. This meant that I was able to speak with two fire-fighters from an all-male watch, which actually strengthened the representativeness of my sample, as this situation is still very much the norm in the Fire Service. That fire-fighters were selected from a number of stations means that I can be reasonably confident in the wider applicability of certain issues which recurred. The choice of many stations over one was also governed by practical and ethical concerns. Individuals may not have felt free to talk openly knowing that their other co-workers had been/were going to be interviewed.
Serendipitously (as the choice was not mine), the stations from which my sample was drawn were quite different from each other. The first station I visited was located in a fairly quiet rural area and was jokingly referred to as a ‘country club’ by the fire-fighters on duty. The watch at this station consisted of 7 fire-fighters, in comparison with the other two stations visited whose watches had roughly 15 members. The dynamics of big/small watches was something which transpired to be a significant factor in influencing fire-fighter’s experience of station life (which is something that will be discussed later, in greater depth).
The differences in terms of location and watch size inevitably affected fire-fighter’s experiences of working life: these differences were taken into consideration in analysis of the results. Despite variations, there were many similarities in terms of fire-fighter’s experiences of working life and threads of commonality which transcended locality.
Selection of Interviewees – Purposive/Voluntary Sampling
In light of information ascertained during the course of the literature review, which emphasised the role that loyalty to one’s watch has in terms of perpetuating the status quo and making the Brigade resistant to change, it was decided that fire-fighters with differing lengths of experience would be interviewed. The ‘Thematic review’ for England and Wales highlighted the influence that older, more experienced fire-fighters can have on their younger counter-parts and so it was decided that the sample would consist of three fire-fighters from each station. An older, more experienced male fire-fighter, a younger male and a female fire-fighter were considered to be the ideal candidates for exploring these aspects of work culture and the diversity of experiences within the Fire Service. The sample consisted of eight males (four older more experienced fire-fighters as well as four younger fire-fighters) and four female fire-fighters.
There was no need to specify length of service criteria for women in the sample as the first whole-time female fire-fighter in Scotland was employed in 1993. Indeed, the 1998 Thematic Review cited the ‘almost total lack of females in promoted positions in Scotland’. Becoming a fully-fledged fire-fighter takes 5 years. The importance placed on length of experience means that women will not be seen in promoted positions in significant numbers until a few years hence.
Random sampling methods were ruled out as women tend to be dispersed among different stations within Brigades. This study ‘over-sampled’ women, so purposive, voluntary based selection was chosen. Interviewing volunteers raises issues of representativeness, in that those who do so are likely to be more extrovert than those who refuse. Furthermore, there is the possibility that candidates may have had an ‘axe to grind’ and different concerns from their co-workers. The status of women within the Brigade (usually on their own in an all-male workforce), meant that female respondents may have felt more obliged to participate than their male counter-parts (raising questions of how ‘voluntary’ participation was). In practice, finding female fire-fighters to take part in the study wasn’t a straightforward task
and interview dates and times had to be organised beforehand in order to ‘catch’ them for interview.
The interviews took place within the fire station itself, which has implications for the type of data collected. As fire-fighters work in a communal environment the interviews were generally conducted in the leading fire-fighter/station officer’s office, which perhaps created a formal atmosphere. The location was not neutral and it is possible that certain kinds of information were censored.
Questions of Rank
The Service is characterised by a hierarchical structure. Entry is one tier, which means that regardless of previous experience and educational qualifications, everyone begins at the same level and all those in the promoted ranks will have had experience of working within ‘watch culture’. Progression through the ranks is slow and typically takes the following length of time:
Leading Fire-fighter: 5 - 8 years
Sub Officer 8-10 years
Station Officer 10-13 years
Assistant Divisional Officer 12-18 years
Divisional Officer 20 years
Senior Divisional Officer 25 years
Fire-master 25+ years
Eleven of the interviewees were of fire-fighter rank (with the exception of one female who was a sub-officer). Although the study focuses mainly on watch culture and the experience of being a fire-fighter, issues regarding promotion are discussed. The highest-ranking female in the sample was one of the first five female fire-fighters in Scotland. The recent influx of female recruits (especially within Lothian and Borders) means the vast majority are of basic entry rank. Thus, the inclusion of a female fire-fighter with 10 years service was a bonus for the research as it gave insight into the ways in which the Service has changed since the initial entry of women.
2.4.1 Gate-keepers and Negotiating Access
A meeting was arranged with the Assistant Inspector of Fire Services (whose remit covers Fairness and Equality), during which my research was discussed. He was interested in the research as it seemed likely to fill a gap in the literature and wasn’t replicating any previous studies. Thus, he offered to facilitate access, as it was assured that my research would be received with greater interest via him, than as a lone researcher without connections. Relief upon gaining access was tempered by awareness that my association with the Government Inspectorate may generate suspicion among potential respondents in terms of the purpose of the research. Indeed, respondents may have felt that they were being investigated. This was remedied in part, by emphasising the academic nature of the research in a non-threatening way. In fact, the assistant inspector of the Fire Service’s assistance was invaluable in facilitating and providing information for the study.
Introducing the Study to the Brigade
The way the study was presented to the brigade was another important concern. It was thought that to present the research as: ‘an exploration of fairness and equality’ would be unwise in light of the assertion made by the authors of the (1999) Thematic review, that EO policies have been met with resentment by many in the Fire Service (although certainly not all). Indeed, there seems to be a commonly accepted view, espoused by both men and women in the Fire Service that the work in ensuring equal opportunities has ‘gone too far’ (The Scotsman 25/9/01).
In Jennifer Brown’s (1998) study on women within the police force, she noted that the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws has driven discrimination and sexism underground. Negativity towards women is still very much in existence, but in a less overt form. She contends that ‘subtle’ discrimination is just as damaging to women’s career progress (arguably more so as it is more difficult to confront). A study that looked at women’s perceptions of discrimination within the police force and focussed solely on women, attracted just 2 women who maintained that they didn’t feel discriminated against. They reported having agreed to take part in spite of, rather than because of the research focus . The remainder of the sample was recruited via ‘snowballing’ and while the majority of women in the sample reported that they felt discriminated against, a substantial number asserted that they did not (Gossett & Williams 1998). The issue of discrimination is such that to draw attention to this and position women as 'victims’ of sexism can be seen as undermining women’s agency. My own contention is that it’s unethical to ‘accentuate the negative’ when women are busy doing the job and negotiating a role for themselves within the workplace.
Another consideration was that male interviewees were likely to be guarded if they believed that they were being quizzed on issues of discrimination and may have felt that they had to ‘tow the politically correct line’, thus closing off potentially enlightening lines of enquiry and compromising validity. This concern was echoed by the study ‘gate-keeper’ who acknowledged that many of the male fire-fighters feel that they cannot speak openly and express their real feelings regarding the issues that surround women within the service, for fear of being disciplined. In light of this the gatekeeper recommended that I emphasise the confidentiality of the study so that fire-fighters feel comfortable and ‘open-up’ to me.
Another mechanism for remedying the problem of guarded responses was by presenting the study as an exploration of the ‘the life of a fire-fighter, the demands of the job and workplace culture’, although this raised ethical questions of non-disclosure (which were discussed with the ‘gate-keeper’). The leading fire-fighters/station officers at the Brigades in question were sent a letter explaining the purpose and aims of the research, as well as a flyer designed in a bolder, simpler way which invited fire-fighters to take part in the research project (see appendices 4 and 5).
The study ‘gate-keeper’ gave me the contact details of two representatives from the Brigades in question. The contact for Central Scotland Fire Brigade’s title was ‘Corporate Affairs – Personnel’ and from the outset was open and responsive about the study. The contact from Lothian and Borders however was the equal opportunities officer, who was less enthusiastic about the proposal. The first question asked was ‘Is this about female fire-fighters?’ and then he went on to explain that because of their status as the brigade with the highest proportion of females, they are literally inundated with similar requests. He explained that interest in their ‘special status’ had been expressed from a number of different sources. Unsurprisingly then, there is a definite sense of ‘research fatigue’ among females in the Brigade. As one female fire-fighter put it ‘It’s hard enough entering a male-dominated profession without so much extra attention from above’ (The Scotsman 25/9/01).
However when I explained that the study focus was broader than he perceived it to be, he seemed more enthusiastic about it. Eventually he conceded that the study seemed more balanced than most of the requests received and the interviews were organised and successfully carried out.
Women Researching Male Dominated Occupations
Closely connected with how the study was presented and perceived by those within the Fire Service is the issue of how I presented myself and negotiated an appropriate research role. It seems relevant to discuss the ways in which my gender could have affected the research process especially when researching a male-dominated occupation. One female researcher looking into the police experienced a dilemma of whether to challenge the offensive, sexist comments made by officers (and therefore jeopardise the ‘rapport’ she wished to develop), or to stay silent and compromise her feminist beliefs (Horn 1997). This is indeed a thorny ethical issue and one that I had to consider. Ultimately, I felt that it was not my place to challenge the interviewee’s beliefs. It is unlikely that it would have changed anyone’s mind and would probably have prematurely closed off the interview and compromised validity.
As a young, white, University educated female it is likely that respondents will have had certain preconceptions of me. Indeed, there are likely to be divergences in experience between respondents and myself in terms of class. It is recognised that the researcher plays a key role in terms of shaping and constructing the data and that if I were male, the chances are I would have heard different kinds of information. Short of having a sex change there was little I could do about this, however reflexivity was an important aim throughout the data collection process. As Hammersly and Atkinson contend, our goal should be the comprehension of researcher effects rather than the eradication of them. In actual fact, a number of things facilitated the development of rapport and trust with respondents.
My initial fears that fire-fighters would merely tow the ‘politically correct line’ were assuaged by the honesty and surprising nature of the things that I was actually told. In my introductory speil at the beginning I told the interviewees that I had attended a positive action open day and had considered joining. Despite the fact that I informed fire-fighters that I had attended one of these days, many interviewees had no qualms about expressing their resentment of such events and their belief that they symbolised the ‘freezing out’ of the white male.
This type of admission, is in opposition to the official fairness and equality ethos of the modern Fire Service and challenges politically correct notions of equality. Such honesty was undoubtedly inspired by the fact that fire-fighters were assured that the content of the interviews would be totally confidential and that no names of people, watches or stations would be used in the writing up of the report. This contributed to the quality of the interviews and the stories, anecdotes and admissions from the fire-fighters who took part were surprising, amusing, colourful and rich.
The (cross-sectional) data collection was done during May and June, while analysis/writing up took place in July and August. ‘Grounded theory’ was employed to analyse the data and develop theory, while simultaneously furthering data collection. In recognition that studies should strive towards objectivity, certain strategies advocated by Marshall & Rossman were employed to guard against bias (i.e. searching for contradictory examples) (1995 p.145).
Throughout the research process (both in terms of data collection and analysis), certain concepts (drawn from the literature) were utilised. Primary among these was that of ‘culture’, defined as a shared set of values and ideologies which are partly ‘maintained and created….through day to day interactions with others.’ (Robinson & Mcllwee 1991). However it is recognised that structural and situational factors are also important determining factors. Certain concepts were used in a ‘sensitising’ way, whereby the intention was not to prove existing theories, but to give some indication of what to ‘look for’ in the field (Atkinson 1981). These were modified in light of the results. Some of these concepts included:
§ Denigration of ‘feminine’ traits/tasks (Brown 1998)
§ Veneration of aggressive action, competitiveness and conflict (Fielding 1994)
§ ‘Obsession’ with technology displayed in a ritualistic way (Robinson & Mcllwee 1991)
§ ‘Boundary Heightening’, whereby masculine traits are exaggerated (Kanter 1977)
Common themes in the data were identified and analysed, whilst also paying attention to the significance of contradictory examples. Crucially, the ways in which the material on the Fire Service was similar to and divergent from previous work on women in male dominated occupations was discussed. Unfortunately, due to the high volume of interesting and relevant material collected, certain issues couldn’t be dealt with within the scope of the dissertation. Thus, only the themes considered to be most salient were discussed.
The dissertation, it is hoped, will improve understanding of some of the challenges faced by non-traditional newcomers. An ethical concern connected with this is the possibility that certain individuals may be identified. However, the fact that I visited numerous stations should minimise this and all efforts were made to ensure confidentiality. Another issue is the potential of research to cast a ‘bad light’ on the Scottish Fire Service. This was recognised by the ‘gate-keeper’ who urged me to focus on and identify common themes, rather than on ‘random’ sexist comments.
While this research has no specific political aims, it is hoped the dissertation conveys respondent’s experiences and beliefs as accurately as possible, and that the analysis contributes to future fairness and equality policies.
In England, Wales and Scotland, the Fire Service has three main functions: fire-fighting, fire-prevention and special services (such as dealing with road traffic accidents, floods etc.). Operational fire-fighters ‘man’ the brigades and provide the front line on fire protection, working 42 hours a week and 48 hours every 8 days. The shifts are organised on a rotational basis and consist of 2 day-shifts and 2 night-shifts (when fire-fighters are free to sleep after official duties have been completed). The working days are followed by 4 days off during which fire-fighters generally rest (but often engage in other kinds of work).
The prime attraction of fire-fighting seems to be the excitement and variety it offers. Indeed many fire-fighters talked of how mundane previous jobs had been by comparison. Furthermore, many of those who joined were attracted by the prospect of being part of a team. An older fire-fighter described how his positive first impression of the Service had been formed when he witnessed a fire-fighting team in action at the scene of a house fire: ‘I remember standing there thinking, what dae I do? Then they come along and everything jist clicked intae place, I wiz quite amazed and I thought I’d like tae be a part of that so, that’s where the interest came fae.’ (MFF3). In response to this I asked whether he had had the opportunity in his previous line of work to operate as part of a team, to which he replied no as there was too high a changeover staff and consequently no chance to ‘gel’. Being a part of something seems to be a defining factor and both men and women alike thrive on the team aspect of the work. Other factors cited included the technical side of the work, getting to grips with the equipment, the physical activity and assisting the public. A number of fire-fighters in the sample, particularly the older ones, cited security of employment and a good pension as attractive features of the work in comparison with other jobs, particularly those in the construction industry. Indeed, it is a stable ‘job for life’ in which you have the opportunity to forge close ties with your co-workers, with whom you may work for the duration of your career.
The pride and self esteem afforded by the job is unusual in this day and age with the demise of other types of manual work and heavy industry. Indeed, fire-fighters have a good public profile and are well respected. It is a job which offers a ready-made, traditional type of manhood: the work is physical yet also skilled and does not require formal academic qualifications. It also involves bravery in the face of danger and for this reason fire-fighters embody the romantic cultural ideal of ‘protector’. This type of masculinity, which may be defined as ‘hegemonic’ (as it is culturally exalted), is especially apparent in this time of gender confusion, when what it is to be ‘masculine’ is uncertain (Connell 1995 p.77). The fact that the job is highly physical and dangerous means that fire-fighters retire ten years earlier than those in other occupations. Many of the fire-fighters explained that the job ‘took it out of you’ and felt that by the time they reached fifty-five they would be ready to retire. Connell talks of how hard manual work requires ‘..strength, endurance, a degree of insensitivity, toughness and group solidarity’ and posits that these features have been exaggerated in order to defend worker’s rights in the face of unjust class relations and intrusions from women (1995 p.55). Changes in the labour market over the last few decades have seen the demise of occupations which require both force and skill, with the result that traditional notions of working class masculinity have been rendered almost obsolete. Thus, in order to understand work within the Fire Service and women’s position within it, we must first recognise that it represents a particular kind of masculinity. Secondly, it should be noted that in this climate of de-skilled and sedentary employment this type of masculinity is not only pronounced but much sought after.
3.2 Pathways Into fire-fighting and The Implications of Previous Work
Fire-fighting is an occupation in which demand for the job far outstrips the actual number of places available. Entry is highly competitive and the application process lengthy, with only a small percentage of those who apply actually getting in. It is not uncommon for fire-fighters to have applied a number of times before they are finally successful. While there is a conception that females are accepted first time, this is not necessarily true, with one of the female fire-fighters in my sample having been accepted three years after the date of her initial attempt. The resilience that some applicants demonstrate by their persistence undoubtedly weighs positively in their favour, as the Fire Service requires and welcomes applications from dedicated individuals. Two of the male fire-fighters in my sample had known that they had wanted to join the Fire Service since their teens and subsequently had channelled all their energies into getting into the Brigade. One of the men had been a scaffolder for two and a half years prior to joining the Service and felt that it had prepared him in a number of ways: ‘...I was used to it, the hard graft, so that sort of paid off mentally’ (MFF8). It is usually the case that those who are truly dedicated will find their efforts and patience rewarded.
However, it may be off-putting for those with less confidence in their ability to do the job, perhaps particularly so for those individuals from non-traditional backgrounds. Indeed, whilst there were two men in my sample who had always wanted to be fire-fighters, none of the women had viewed a career in the Fire Service as a long term ambition, with most coming round to the idea at a later date. In order to prevent the attrition of suitable candidates then, the Fire service needs to give feedback and encouragement to those unsuccessful candidates who have the potential to achieve success next time around.
In terms of easing one’s progression into the Fire Service there are certain types of work experience which confer definite advantages. Men entering the Service tend to have worked in similarly manual positions and a common thing is for fire-fighters to have a trades background. In my small (and by no means representative) sample half of the men interviewed had come from a trades background, while the other half had been employed in non-manual work (predominantly office work). In contrast none of the women interviewed had done any kind of manual work before entering the Fire Service.
In some ways there is a ‘natural’ or traditional route to work in the Fire Service and many of the fire-fighters discussed how the physical nature the work meant that those from manual occupations had more affinity with it. An older male fire-fighter who himself had a trades background described this connection: ‘...because of the nature of the beast, because this type of job you know, I mean it’s a physical job, you’re jack of all trades and Master of none and....the biggest majority that come into the job have either came through the likes of the building trade, the forces, you know.’ He went on to say how he had noticed that in recent years the selection process had begun to favour those with academic qualifications ‘as opposed to other attributes, you know without being biased, trying to be objective, it doesn’t always work.’ (MFF1). Thus in a subtle manner he was questioning the wisdom of accepting into the Fire Service those who come from non-traditional backgrounds.
Another fire-fighter, who had previously worked as a baker (and was employed in the retained service before joining full-time) was more open-minded in terms of those with non-manual work backgrounds. He conceded that those from the trades know certain things that are beneficial to the job but that ‘…other people mibbae need two or three shots, ken...we all come in at different levels’ (MFF3).
In terms of preparation for work in the Fire Service, two of the female fire-fighters emphasised how their previous jobs dealing with the public had conferred definite advantages. Indeed, one of the female fire-fighters told of how her previous work (as a civil servant) had involved dealing with people distressed upon losing their job. The skills developed in these interactions meant that she could deal with similarly distressing things in the Fire Service more easily. Indeed, while there is a great emphasis on hard physical graft, fire-fighters encounter a range of situations which require good people skills and an ability to communicate with and comfort individuals in vulnerable situations. Such skills are especially important in terms of the community education side of fire-fighting, which has become an integral part of the job in recent years. Despite this positive spin on non-manual work experience, manual and technical skills seemed to take precedence.
Strikingly, half of the women interviewed were degree educated whereas none of the men had been to University. This backs-up anecdotal evidence from an Assistant Inspector of the Fire Service who said that female fire-fighters tend to be better educated than their male counterparts. In the case of the females who had been to University they had been pointed in the direction of the Fire Service as a career by friends who thought that they had the requisite qualities to make good fire-fighters (because of their love of sport and a challenge). Neither of the women had contemplated the Fire Service as a career before. This has policy implications for the Fire service in terms of making itself more attractive to non-traditional
newcomers. It seems that a great deal of work needs to be done in order to make the prospect of a career in the Fire Service just a possibility in the minds of potential female recruits. The other two women had known that they wished to be employed in some kind of public service work, eventually opting for a career in the Fire Service (as it is afforded a greater degree of respect than other public service occupations). In terms of easing the application process and facilitating entry in to the Fire Service, one of the women was assisted by another fire-fighter who gave advice and support to her. She felt that this had been useful as at that time, there were no positive action networks or career open days for women to speak of.
One of the female fire-fighters who had been directed to the Fire service as a career by a friend, consequently applied to the retained service and upon entering her first fire station was struck with an instantaneous feeling that this was her ‘calling’. Before this, a career in the Fire Service had never crossed her mind. She went on to say that ‘you don’t really think of somebody fitting my description as going to join the Fire Service and I was in that bracket as well, I wouldn’t have considered it was a job open to me’ (FFF5). She didn’t fit the occupational stereotype in that, she is petite, short (around 5ft 2inches) and female.
The Fire Service in Scotland got rid of height and age requirements fairly recently (in April 1997), yet the physicality of the job is often over-emphasised and a certain type of physical stature still serves as a template for the ‘ideal’ fire-fighter. There is more likely to be a discrepancy between the physical characteristics of female fire-fighters and the stereotype of the ideal fire-fighter. Consequently there are likely to be a high number of potential recruits who are unaware of the actual standards a person needs to meet in order to be successful in the job. The Fire Service then needs to disseminate more information regarding its recruitment standards.
3.3 Positive Action Open Days For Women
In light of the fact that the Fire Service is not an obvious career choice for women, the positive action open days, which have been held by a number of Brigades, seem to be an ideal way of introducing females to the Service in a non-threatening way. However, there seemed to be a commonly held belief that the Fire Service has placed too much emphasis on Fairness and Equality policies in recent years. Among young and old male fire-fighters alike there was a feeling that white males were being ‘frozen out’ by the service. This is typified in the following statement: ‘…okay we’re wanting equality em, people’s rights…but there were special open days for ethnic minorities and women, there was nothing for the straight hetero male, you see what I mean? And this is people outside em, you know, generating their thoughts and telling us “god they’re no wanting straight heterosexual men” and it was along thae lines for a while you know?’ (MFF6). There was no recognition that the purpose of such open days was to redress the gender imbalance in the Fire Service and to make it more representative of the community it serves, or indeed that certain sections of society may need extra encouragement to apply in the first instance. This fire-fighter’s choice of words ‘straight, heterosexual men’, implies that he was referring to a certain kind of male, the type that has until very recently, had a monopoly on jobs in the service.
The open days created discontent, as for many they symbolised the exclusion of men from this sphere. As well as this many felt that positive action (or as many called it, ‘positive discrimination’) had gone too far, resulting in a situation where, as one fire-fighter put it ‘…if you’re male you’ve got less chance of getting in than a female or an ethnic.’ (MFF3). There is a feeling that the Service is overly concerned with ‘numbers’ and that this is actually disadvantaging the white male ‘…I wouldnae like tae think that my son couldnae get a chance of getting in ken?.’ (MFF3). In terms of whether this was a commonly held belief among men in the Fire Service, he said that he estimated that roughly 95% felt this way (but that many of them could not speak openly about their beliefs for fear of negative repercussions). The level of discontent these open days created resulted in their demise, as one female fire-fighter said ‘…there’s too many people who think that we’re trying to have an all female Fire Service, which you know is quite naïve to think that. But it’s just, you’ve obviously got to go with the majority and you’ve obviously got to satisfy most people so, unfortunately, that kind of thing has…died a death really.’ (FFF7)
Within the Service there is also a strongly held belief that standards are being lowered in order to facilitate women’s entry. This was voiced directly and hinted at on more than one occasion. Indeed, a young male fire-fighter spoke of how there had been four women on the training course, two of whom, he felt should not have been there. He expressed disbelief at that particular Brigade’s inability to find a more suitable candidate, whether that meant employing a man or a woman. The question of whether or not Brigades actually are lowering standards is a controversial issue. If indeed they are then this will not help women’s situation in the Service in the long term, furthermore, it is likely to be detrimental to those women who achieved their place in the Fire Service through all the proper channels. On the other hand, if this is just a misguided and falsely held belief then the very fact that it is so pervasive will also have negative consequences for women in the Service, as it serves to justify their exclusion and sustains male dominance by positioning women as inferior. One female fire-fighter confided that she was well aware that some people didn’t think she deserved to be in the job. She described how she suffered a certain amount of psychological strain created by the knowledge that some people thought she only got in because of her gender: ‘…joining the Service, one of the things which I felt was hard, was that I got into this job straight away and some people will try and try and try and never get in and some people will think to themselves she got in cos she’s a girl and I don’t think that, I think it’s because I was absolutely fantastic all through my recruitment process.’ (FFF5). Ultimately though, the contention that the Fire service is employing women simply because of their gender, constitutes a powerful example of rhetoric. By this reckoning it is men and not women who are being discriminated against.
· Fire-fighting is not an obvious career choice for women. More needs to be done to encourage non-traditional newcomers and to make the Fire Service a possibility in the minds of potential female recruits. As a long-term option this may be done by visiting schools in conjunction with careers advisory services. Strathclyde Fire Service is currently involved in an initiative to allow secondary school pupils to visit stations and become involved in some of the tasks that fire-fighters are routinely engaged in (such as providing first aid etc.). Similarly, encouraging young women to become more involved in team sports would let them experience working collectively to achieve common goals (the premise Fire Service work).
· The application process for the Fire Service is a long drawn out affair. This may be off-putting for non-traditional candidates who are lacking in confidence. Thus, the Fire Service may consider giving feedback and encouragement in order to prevent the attrition of potential candidates.
As the Fire Service only recently got rid of its height and age limits, information should be disseminated regarding the actual physical standards and requirements of the job. Women do not fit the physical stereotype of a fire-fighter and many may be unaware that work in the Service doesn’t require brute strength. The different qualities that heterogeneous individuals can bring to the team should be emphasised.
Positive action days have created a high degree of resentment in the Service. There should be more recognition of the purpose of these open days in terms of allowing potential female candidates to attempt certain tasks and to find out about the culture of the Service (as some are more concerned about ‘fitting-in’ than actual physical competency).
The belief that the Fire Service is lowering standards to facilitate the entry of women is pervasive. Whether this is true or untrue, it is likely to have a detrimental effect on women’s acceptance and progression within the profession. There needs to be more open discussion regarding this issue and clarification of the actual entry requirements.
After being accepted, trainee fire-fighters are given their first proper introduction to Fire Service life at the twelve week residential course in Gullane. The course is intensive and the regime fairly strict. Upon arrival fire-fighters are assigned to squads of roughly ten people with whom they are expected to work as a closely-knit team. That the course is residential means that new recruits are effectively ‘immersed’ in the culture of the Fire Service and free from personal and domestic distractions. One young fire-fighter described the functionality of this live-in style of training: ‘you’ve got people coming in from every walk of life and they’ve got to bring them all into focus to be able to do the job in the Fire Service’ (MFF2).
In terms of finding the experience of the training school difficult, one of the older hands again emphasised how it may be particularly hard depending on the employment background of the fire-fighter: ‘...he (a young recruit) might no be used to any heavy, heavy physical work but when you combine that with the discipline you know, you’ll be marching up and down and saluting officers and such like.’ (MFF1). Indeed, the level of discipline imposed on recruits in the Fire Service is unknown outside of the military. At the time of its inception the Fire Service based much of its procedural style and terminology on the armed forces, having a particular affinity with the Navy. In the Fire Stations visited there was generally a sign up saying ‘Mess hall’ referring to the communal kitchen/dining area (a term which has been directly transported from the army). Similarly fire-fighters ‘Muster’ every morning (line up to be told their duties for the coming day) and refer to ropes as ‘lines’ (as in the language of the Navy). Stand-pipes are not just put into the hydrant but ‘shipped into it’. The fact that the Fire Service used the armed forces (which is predominantly white and male) as its model in terms of terminology and style has obvious implications for making the Service more diverse. Indeed, non-traditional newcomers may feel less at ease with the ethos and organisation of the Fire Service.
As in the Armed Forces, the Fire Service training school (perhaps because of its close affiliations with the military) has been criticised for treating recruits in too heavy-handed a manner. Indeed, one of the older fire-fighters (who was heavily involved with the FBU) spoke of how positive changes had been instigated by the FBU in terms of the implementation of fairness at work policies. There was talk among the older hands of bullying having taken place but that this had diminished in recent years. One of the older, more experienced fire-fighters who had completed his training course fifteen years ago said that there had been a scandal (which made the national press) directly before he begun his training. Apparently trainee fire-fighters had been hit and bullied by instructors but, due to the furore these accusations attracted and the bad publicity generated, such behaviour had been stamped out. He himself had no problems with the high level of discipline expected of new recruits: ‘…they were doing their job and ye had tae show respect. They would try tae install that in ye, an officer says something, you do it.’ (MFF3). While a number of fire-fighters (both old and young) shared this attitude of automatically affording respect to the instructors, there were many who felt uncomfortable with the military style of teaching at the training school. The most vitriolic attack came from a male fire-fighter who completed his training course over twenty years ago. To say that he had a problem with the way trainees were treated would be an understatement: ‘...at that time the instructors treated you like a bit of dirt and they spoke to you as if you were a bit of dirt and they expected you to adhere to their rules but I wouldnae, if an instructor swore at me, I swore back at him, If he called me a name I called him a name and I wiz forever getting hauled into the office cos I couldnae understand why somebody would speak to you like that when they were meant to be training you.’ (MFF9). He described how instructors would ‘beast’ new recruits, a process which entailed working them beyond physically acceptable limits: ‘..at lunch-time you would eat a big dinner and they would say “I’m going to make you sick this afternoon”, they would want you to be sick over the fence, that was the kind of mentality, thankfully I think it’s changed now.’ (MFF9). It seems that the culture of the training school has changed, but twenty years on some recruits still have difficulty with the style of training.
Indeed, a young male fire-fighter who finished his training three and a half years ago described how the instructors were tough on the new recruits: ‘the very first day they were shouting and bawling at us’ (MFF4). He went on to say that he was unused to this and found it difficult not to retaliate. Indeed, he admitted that it took him a number of weeks to come to terms with this type of treatment. Despite the fact that he questioned this style of authority he recognised its functionality in terms of ensuring that fire-fighters fit into the disciplined environment of the Service. He went on to describe though, how military associations had begun to be downplayed and how much of the terminology had changed (the prime example being that new fire-fighters are no longer called ‘recruits’ but rather ‘trainees’). This was echoed by another fire-fighter who discussed how the training school had recently been trying to veer away from any similarities with the army. She added though that she felt a certain level of discipline was necessary, in order to bring disparate individuals into line with the ethos of the Fire Service.
In terms of the dynamics between the individual and the group, at the training level although team-work is important, fire-fighters are also striving to succeed on an individual level. Until very recently recruits would compete for the ‘fire-master’s prize’, an award given to the best recruit. Consequently, as one of the older hands informed me, although you worked closely as a team, you would also be competing with the other recruits in the drill yard in order to ‘shine’ in this environment of continual assessment (MFF1). The individualism engendered by such prizes was offset by the fact that squads compete for the coveted title of ‘best squad’. The team-work fostered by this was noted by many of the fire-fighters and a common thing was for people to emphasise how each person brought different strengths to the team. Similarly, it is not uncommon for fire-fighters to incur minor injuries whilst training and in order to make sure that their fellow trainee avoided being re-coursed, the squad would usually pull together in order to assist the injured recruit through adversity.
Unlike the other fire-fighters I spoke to, one female described some of the physical tasks that were required of them at Gullane. This was in response to a comment made about how many people (especially women) perceive the job as ‘beyond them’, requiring incredible amounts of strength. She said that this was a misconception but went onto describe two physical tasks that stood out from all the rest as being particularly physically demanding (See appendix 6 for more detail). Though she was competent and maintained that the job itself wasn’t actually that physically arduous, she felt that she had to keep ‘on top of’ her fitness level, particularly her upper body strength, by lifting weights and running. The reason that she devoted so much time and energy into keeping fit she explained, was because of her height and build. Short and petite, she maintained that putting on a breathing apparatus set was a lot harder for her than for someone taller than her, leading her to conclude that ‘it’s not so much that the actual training was that hard it’s just that my physique doesn’t suit it…and I just have to keep on top of it.’ (FFF5).
Chetkovitch argues that inappropriately sized equipment renders work more treacherous, difficult and uncomfortable for women than their male counterparts (1997). This fire-fighter’s lack of confidence in her physique was perhaps also due to the fact that she had a particularly negative experience of training. Interestingly, she didn’t refer to this when we were on the topic of training. This may be due to the fact that the subject was covered near the beginning of the interview and rapport and trust hadn’t been sufficiently developed. It may also be because she wished to put the experience behind her and get on with being a fire-fighter. She had experienced difficulties at the training school where her own instructor had wanted her to fail: ‘…he couldn’t hide it in the end that he wanted me to fail because he didn’t think that I should’ve been in the job cos, not just that I’m female but I’m small, I’m petite, I look like I couldn’t possibly have the physique for the job but I carried down an eleven and a half stone guy from the fourth floor the same as everyone else…well, everyone else got a lighter one so..’ (FFF5). Thus, her ability to do the job undermined the notion that the ideal fire-fighter is big, brawny and male.
The instructor who attempted to make her fail had positively asked her to do things that no-one else was expected to do. In fact, he got into trouble in the end for asking her to do something that was against health and safety regulations: ‘...and that was for me to haul aloft the ladder which meant me pulling the ladder up, no-body else had to do it and I had a broken finger’. She explained that she was blinded at the time and dutifully followed her instructors requests. It was only towards the end that she begun to ask questions and other people informed her that certain tasks had been unnecessary. Eventually she realised that her instructor had asked her to do these things: ‘cos he wanted me out the course, he wanted me to struggle with the hand to the point that I…oh there were other wee things like I say it was a whole big blown up thing at the end, but he was very condescending and dismissive and all the rest of it, he was one of a group of people who didn’t think that somebody like me should be at Gullane.’ (FFF5). Against all the odds, she completed the course, purely through her dedication to the job and a drive to get through the training course. This constitutes an unambiguous example of ‘boundary heightening’, whereby male workers exaggerate certain features in order to express difference from their female co-workers (Kanter 1977 p.221). Though the instructor’s action backfired, his intention was to make her fail the course by increasing the difficulty of the physical tasks.
This female fire-fighter’s experience was unusual among the women I spoke with. Despite the fact that they are usually well out-numbered at Gullane, the other women in my sample reported positive training experiences that didn’t differ greatly from their male counter-parts. As well as this, all of the females I spoke with reported having developed good relationships with their fellow squad members with whom they worked well as a team. Interestingly though, one of the female fire-fighters thought that her positive training experience had lulled her into a false sense of security, as her experience on her first watch was in direct contrast to the supportive environment of the training school (which will be discussed in greater depth in the next section).
When the afore-mentioned female joined the Fire Service in 1993, the first year of women’s entry, she was one of just five female fire-fighters in Scotland. She loved her time at Gullane and passed everything first time. There had been one other female on the training course whom she remains friendly with until this day, but while at the training school, they purposely didn’t socialise with each other as they didn’t want to isolate themselves and draw attention to their gender. She believed that she had been treated no differently to her male counter-parts during the training period but instructors whom she spoke with at a later date admitted to her that it had been strange having a woman on the course and that they had modified their behaviour slightly. They confided that they had been ‘softer’ with her and had reduced the disciplinarian side of things in her presence.
Despite the fact that the training provides a ‘crash course’ in the job of fire-fighting and socialises new recruits into the Fire Service, many fire-fighters talked of how different the experience of the training school is in comparison to watch culture and the demands of the real job. Indeed, no matter how rigorous the training, it can never replicate the real danger and unexpected nature of the incidents fire-fighters are called out to. All of the fire-fighters I spoke to were of the opinion that the training merely ‘scratched the surface’ in terms of job competency. There was a common recognition that real learning comes through experience and watching and taking advice from the older hands (as in an apprenticeship).
The ‘culture-shock’ of joining your first watch and settling into station life was noted by the majority of fire-fighters in the sample. Most new fire-fighters, fresh from the strict, regimented environment of the training school were happy to find station life more relaxed and less fraught than they had anticipated. This sentiment is encapsulated in one young male fire-fighter’s description of one of the key differences between the training school and the station: ‘...being in the presence of a white shirt, like a station officer and not having to call them sir, not having to jump to attention.’ (MFF8). Indeed, while the hierarchy of the rank system is still in force at the station, it is not as apparent or rigidly observed as it is at the training school.
‘When you’re at the school you’re having to get through as an individual although you’re part of the squad, you as an individual are getting used to all these things whereas you come back to the station and...I think the emphasis changes and it’s how you fit into the watch and how the watch accepts you. It’s quite a big thing, em, I suppose in any job as well but more so with this job as you spend so much time together.’ (FFF10).
This female fire-fighter’s observation is entirely accurate. Indeed, when one considers the fact that fire-fighters may work on the same watch for the duration of their career: eating, sleeping and spending time on stand-down together, how you ‘fit in’ with your co-workers takes on a higher level of significance than it does in other types of work. The new member of the watch is joining an already closely-knit team and has both social and professional pressures to live up to in order to be considered a competent fire-fighter.
4.2.1 The Demise of Initiation Rituals
Becoming part of the group used to be marked by an initiation ritual called a ‘test of courage’. These initiations were not just confined to one station or Brigade, but were widespread, occurring in Brigades all over the UK. A few of the older fire-fighters discussed the purpose of such rites, emphasising that they weren’t intended to harass the individual but rather: ‘ to bring the raw recruit out of their shell’. One more experienced fire-fighter went on to describe how such initiation rituals served to draw a line between the very disciplined environment of the training school and the station, and highlighted their functional value in terms of facilitating the breakdown of any social awkwardness that new fire-fighters may feel. The very essence of fire-fighting is team work, trust and being safe in the knowledge that fellow fire-fighters may be relied upon in the event of dangerous and harrowing incidents. This is encapsulated in the following description of why it is necessary to bring the new fire-fighter ‘out of his shell’: ‘…he’s coming into an environment, it’s completely alien to him and when the bells go down the first time you’re called out, and no
doubt I was the same the first time I came back, you’ll be sitting there in the van and you don’t know where you’re going and you don’t know these people sitting beside you. So you’ve got to bring them out of their shell, you’ve got to.’ (MFF1). These physical ‘tests of courage’ also enabled the watch to assess whether or not the new fire-fighter could stay calm under pressure; an essential quality for dealing with emergency incidents (see appendix 8 for a description of a physical initiation).
Despite maintaining that they were done in good spirit, this fire-fighter went on to say that they had been stamped out in recent years and were now frowned upon by officials. Ultimately, he was accepting of the idea that they have no place in the modern Fire Service. He informed me that they had begun to disappear at the end of the late 80’s. The turning point (according to this fire-fighter) came roughly ten years ago when a case involving a new female fire-fighter shed negative light on such activities. Apparently a watch had spun a new female fire-fighter on a hydraulic platform for a long period of time (as part of an initiation ritual) and harassed her simply because of her gender. He conceded that physical initiation rituals probably still went on to a certain extent but that he hadn’t heard of them happening within his own Brigade. Thus, a seminal case involving a female in the Service resulted in the demise of such rites.
Another older male fire-fighter lamented the death of the old culture and described how people within the Service were afraid of recrimination: ‘it’s a pity, it’s something that’s lost but it’s something that...it never went too far, as long as it wiz kept in context it was alright...ye were expecting it...but it’s a changed job and a working environment altogether noo ken?’(MFF3). Again this loss was tied to the entry of women. This fire-fighter conceded that a lot of the changes were necessary because there was the danger that, when done to a female, they would be taken out of context: ‘...we got stripped to the waist and that kind of thing, obviously ye couldnae dae that tae a woman, but people were scared tae dae anything, when the first woman came in we had tae, in case somebody was cried (called) something, and I’d say that wiz, and it’s nothing against women, it’s just people were scared in case, there wiz that atmosphere, women were strange in the job as ye can understand and it wiz 99% male ken?’ (MFF3). Thus, women’s entry caused a shake-up of Fire Service culture and there was a certain level of fear and confusion regarding what constituted acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
Young fire-fighters from the same Brigade acknowledged that they had not experienced such initiation rites but a few said they knew of probationary fire-fighters who had experienced physical pranks. One young male fire-fighter in particular seemed to have picked up on the sense of sadness regarding the demise of the old Fire Service culture and echoed the older male fire-fighter in terms of discussing how fairness at work policies had constrained behaviour (perhaps to an unhealthy degree). Indeed, he seemed to suggest that many of the policies cosset and protect women too much as he argued that most of the women he knew in the Service could hold their own ‘…I mean there’s a couple that are cruder than the men…’(MFF4). He described his own integration into watch culture as unproblematic and insisted that due to his laid back nature, he could fit in anywhere.
A certain amount of ‘ribbing’ has taken the place of the old tests of courage, as one of the older fire-fighters told me: ‘...there are other ways and means of bringing a laddie oot his shell a wee bit.’, he went on to describe how a new fire-fighter would be ‘...watching his P’s and Q’s and now we’ve got females in as well obviously, they don’t want to say the wrong thing and the minute they say something it’s to a certain extent blown out of proportion and nicknames follow on you know?, there’s another young lad on our watch and his exaggerated feature is his ears right? So, an obvious one, last weekend he was christened ‘bugger lugs’, you know so it goes on and that’s the way it is.’ (MFF1). Again he emphasised this was not in any way intended to denigrate or harm the individual.
Whereas men generally emphasised the unproblematic nature of making the transition from outsider to insider: ‘just as soon as you’re in that’s it, you’re part of everything’ (MFF11), women’s experience tended to be more complex. This is encapsulated in one female fire-fighter’s answer to the question of how she settled into her watch. First of all she noted that everyone was: ‘really friendly’ but went on to say that: ‘...in some ways being a woman it can swing one of both ways, people don’t want to be seen as overly friendly or overly helpful cos then you feel like you’re looking after the girl and the girl’s not going to want that.’ (FFF5). She perceived the other fire-fighters on the watch as being concerned with keeping a certain amount of distance. She expanded on this observation by saying: ‘there’s almost like an anti-feeling towards that, don’t be overly protective, don’t be overly helpful and all the rest of it, but I mean people are definitely welcoming and friendly... oh well, I know now that there was a feeling that, among some of the older hands, oh we don’t want a girl on our watch and whether those feelings are still there I wouldn’t know cos they don’t show it...so people, I mean most people are quite good at showing that if they don’t want you there they just have to keep it to themselves, which is fair enough.’ (FFF5). Clearly, her feelings about becoming accepted by the watch were not straightforward. She begun on a positive note ‘everyone’s really friendly’, but ended by acknowledging that she had been aware that there was a certain degree of antipathy towards her joining the watch, because of her gender.
The way in which women were received by their watch seemed to differ substantially from their male counter-parts. Indeed, another female fire-fighter (who had experienced the integration process twice, as she had requested a move to a busier station) described how she felt that the men were: ‘...very like, sort of walking on eggshells and kind of like, they’re too afraid to say anything and like they’ll change their normal culture just to try and see how you react or they’re expecting something out of you…’ (FFF7). She went on to say that the way they were when she joined was vastly different to the way they behaved now: ‘...they had to see what I was like so they kind of withdraw themselves a wee bit and let you come in.’. This contention was reinforced by an older male fire-fighter who concurred that the watch altered its established style of interaction when a female joined. He admitted that this was in order to: ‘suss her out, and then it’s like: boys will be boys.’ (MFF6). Thus implying that they go ‘back to normal’ once they feel comfortable with the new female.
Another male fire-fighter, in discussion of his own move from the training school to the station, contended that the process of becoming an insider generally took around six weeks as both parties were a little wary of each other. On the whole though, for women, the process of making the transition from outsider to insider seemed to be more complex and less automatic than their male counter-parts who generally assumed immediate acceptance and usually attained it. There also seemed to be less humour and ribbing going on, with the rest of the watch taking a somewhat more stand-offish position towards new females.
In contrast, one female fire-fighter felt that she had simply been made to feel welcome. She felt that this was partly because she wasn’t the first female fire-fighter to join the watch and so the path had already been cleared for her. Another factor influencing women’s experience on the watch may be the presence (or otherwise) of a male fire-fighter who has a certain degree of influence over watch culture, acting as a ‘champion of equality’. Indeed, a more experienced male fire-fighter described the reaction of some fire-fighters to the news that the first female would be joining the watch (ten years previously): ‘…I remember lads saying oh women this and they cannae do….wimps, they’ve nae strength you know and I said eh what about Wullie? He’s 16 stone and I’ve had tae pull him oot of bloody jobs cos he’s too fat and awkward you know? And eh, as far as physical strength goes, what aboot so and so? And name another guy, you know?, but the bottom line is (thumping the table and delivered in a staccato style), women are in the job and…if I hear of any of you harassing any female members you won’t have the Fire-Master after you, you’ll have me. Right, simply because, if you don’t like the idea of women in the job, that’s your problem, but you’re no gonnae take it out on (says the name of a female fire-fighter)’ (MFF1). There had been two females on his particular watch who eventually progressed through the ranks to reach the position of sub-officer. This example shows how key individuals within the watch, can facilitate fairness and equality in the Service.
The most difficult transition into station life was described by the longest serving female fire-fighter in the sample. As mentioned briefly in the previous section, she felt that her positive experience at training school had rendered her unprepared for the treatment she received at the hands of her watch. When she joined her first station (in 1993) there was considerable opposition to women in the Service and her own watch disapproved of having her on the shift. In terms of the ways in which this disapproval manifested itself, she said that it was difficult to pinpoint concrete acts or expressions of resistance, as no one was directly aggressive towards her. In fact she was ostracised in subtle ways, for example, when she entered a room the other fire-fighters would go silent. Not only was she frozen out socially but the watch members actively undermined her professionally. A prime example of this was by calling for the assistance of another fire-fighter when she was involved in a job that only
required two people. Although she felt capable of doing the job, had performed well at the training school and (at that time) considered herself at least as competent as her male counter-parts, the treatment she received wore her down. After a year of service, she began to question her own ability as well as her career choice and seriously contemplated leaving.
This challenges Edelman’s claim (in the context of shunting) that collective work renders women's exclusion all but impossible. Indeed, there are many similarities between fire-fighting and shunting, yet this did not prevent the men ‘freezing-out’ the afore-mentioned fire-fighter. In the context of work which calls for collective endeavour and solidarity, this example demonstrates how women’s exclusion can be particularly acute.
The reason for this fire-fighter’s perseverance was the support she received from those in the upper echelons of the Service. The ‘ranks’ were well aware of what was happening and asked her what they could do to remedy the situation. Rather than instigate formal proceedings, she insisted on dealing with it by herself. Indeed, she was convinced that any action from above would worsen the situation. Furthermore, she rejected the suggestion that she move to another watch on the basis that it would be evading the problem. Eventually she decided to confront the issue head on and approached each of the fire-fighters individually. She asked directly why they had a problem with her and the common reply was: ‘it’s not you, I just don’t think that women should be in the job’. In response, she asked whether she had given them any reason to doubt her capabilities, to which many of then said no, but they felt that their wife or sister would be incapable of doing the job. To this she retorted: ‘yes but I’m not your wife or sister’ (FFF12). We may understand this in terms of ‘gender role spill-over’ whereby women are viewed as women first and workers second (Cohen and Gutek 1992). The men on her watch were unable to conceive of a female fire-fighter and introduced the stereotypical roles of wife and mother into the workplace.
The situation improved after this confrontation showing how individuals may be less inclined to sustain a certain kind of behaviour without the support or backing of the group. The situation was further improved by the arrival of a new male fire-fighter who immediately accepted and became friends with her. Despite such acrimonious beginnings, she persevered and stayed on the watch for seven years. Indeed, she eventually rose through the ranks to become a sub-officer. When she finally left the watch to go to another (for promotion purposes) she enjoyed the experience and said that she couldn’t have hoped to work with a better group of people.
The level of resistance towards women in the Service according to Chetkovich, cannot just be attributed to questions regarding women’s ability or the challenge they present to group solidarity. She argues that men are concerned with preserving all-male spaces and privilege in order to sustain ‘a cultural ideal of masculinity’ (1997 p.188). Furthermore, she contends that the ‘anti-feminine’ nature of much working class (male dominated) employment should be understood as a ‘rejection of upper class forms of masculinity’ (1997 p.188). Women’s entry then presents a challenge to the notion that only a certain kind of man is able to do the work.
· The military culture is likely to be off-putting to those from non-traditional backgrounds. Indeed, many young fire-fighters had problems with this type of authority, finding it unnecessary and anachronistic. A balance needs to be struck between instilling discipline and being too heavy-handed.
· Women reported largely positive training experiences, with the exception of one female whose time was marred by an instructor who attempted to make her fail. This signifies that women are more likely to be accepted if they fit certain physical criteria. This female fire-fighter’s ability to do the job and complete the course challenged the masculine notion of the ideal fire-fighter.
· The transition from the training school to the watch is characterised by a shift from an individual to a group mentality, where ‘fitting-in’ is crucially important. Women’s entry has forced changes to the way in which fire-fighters are accepted by the watch and physical initiation rituals have waned. There is a tangible sense of loss at this aspect of work culture.
· Women’s transition from the training school to the watch is more complex and less automatic than men’s. One woman described how the men were concerned with keeping their distance and not appearing overly helpful. She also admitted that there had been a degree of antipathy towards her entry (simply because of her gender).
· Fire-fighters appear to alter their established form of interaction when a new female joins the watch, but once comfortable, revert back to their ‘normal’ culture. Women’s acceptance seems less immediate than their male counterparts, with the watch taking a more stand-offish position characterised by less ribbing and humour.
· Certain fire-fighters may be able to facilitate fairness and equality within the Service by acting as ‘Champions of Equality’. Conversely, influential watch members may hinder women’s acceptance.
· The longest-serving female fire-fighter’s experience highlights how covert discrimination can adversely affect women’s career progression. It demonstrates how, in subtle ways the group may act to ostracise a member. Resolution of the situation came when the female in question approached the men individually and questioned their behaviour. The subsequent improvement demonstrates how individuals may be less inclined to sustain certain behaviour or beliefs without the backing of the group.
· It is difficult to say with any real certainty how much resistance towards women in the Service has dissipated since their initial entry, but the longest serving female fire-fighter experienced the greatest difficulty in terms of watch integration. Indeed, it seems that contact with individual women can erode sexism.
· Finally, the ‘anti-feminine’ culture of the Service can be interpreted as an assertion of working class masculinity. The presence of women in fire-fighting roles challenges the legitimacy of the definition of the ‘ideal’ fire-fighter and men’s resistance to the entry of women can be understood as an attempt to sustain this ideal.
As mentioned previously, working conditions serve to create a type of camaraderie and solidarity that is specific to, and unusual outside of the Fire Service. This was noted by an older fire-fighter who contended that: ‘you become sort of institutionalised if you like em…and you have a real warped sense of humour, that’s to say, to give you an example, there could be firemen out say on a night out, other people would not understand what they’re getting at, what they were saying’ (MFF6). He was referring not just to aspects related to the incidents fire-fighters are called out to, but the social life within and out-with the station. This statement encapsulates the enclosed nature of the job where a distinction may be drawn between those inside and outside of Fire Service culture. Indeed, the watch often resembles: ‘a big extended family’ (MFF11).
At the scene of a fire, the highest-ranking member of the watch stands outside and delegates tasks to the other fire-fighters (See appendix 10 for a fuller explanation). The sub-officer in my sample said that there is an almost natural system regarding the way the team operates. She described how younger fire-fighters tend to be desperate to gain experience, and so are keen to do the dangerous jobs that require hard graft. She also said that it was a ‘natural’ thing for the older fire-fighters to stand back and let the younger fire-fighters ‘get their hands dirty’, although they play a crucial role in passing on their knowledge to the younger members of the watch. It was her contention that a watch with a wide range of ages works best as the older hands assist the younger members in becoming proficient fire-fighters. They clearly act as a calming influence on the younger members of the watch, indeed as one fire-fighter with thirty years experience said: ‘…you have a rush of adrenaline in the beginning obviously as you progress through the years you gain experience right, I see some people and I say calm down son you know? Just deal with it, but that’s only cos I’ve been a long time in the job you know?’ (MFF6). As a ‘rank’ in charge of an incident the sub-officer admitted that although your role is to direct and guide the team, you also have a strong urge to get practically involved.
This description of how fire-fighters work clearly shows how team-work is crucial, to the extent that there are few tasks that are done on an individual basis. Indeed a young male fire-fighter described how ‘...even if it’s just a silly wee job you end up like one person doing it and five other people watching you, you know like we always work as a team and you always get, well...maybe you could just do it, mibbae go in from a slightly different angle or mibbae do this or do that, you’ve always got people standing behind you giving you a wee bit of advice.’ (MFF4).
From this statement we may infer that there is no place for the kind of solo ‘showing-off’ which Robinson and Mcllwee describe in their study of engineering culture. Indeed, they noted how male engineers’ engagement in ‘ritual tinkering’ (a technical display involving taking machinery apart) disadvantages women who are less comfortable with such activities due to early socialisation experiences and a lack of encouragement to engage in them (1991 p.406). It is true that, in some ways the nature of Fire Service work renders such displays untenable. The relationship between fire-fighters and their tools/equipment is rather different. This is encapsulated in the following description of the level of technical ability required: ‘…you don’t really need to maintain a pump or whatever cos, you’re not allowed to touch a lot of the things, I mean technically you have to have a lot of common sense and you have to be quite ingenious sometimes but for example wearing the breathing apparatus, we’re not allowed to fiddle around with it because should we do something wrong we could die.’ (FFF5).
Despite the fact that an in-depth, hands on working knowledge of machinery and equipment isn’t required to do the job well, the afore-mentioned fire-fighter felt dissatisfied with merely having a theoretical comprehension. The following description encapsulates this: ‘…you have to know the principles, you have to be able to recite how an engine works and how a pump works, whether or not it makes a lot of sense to you it doesn’t really matter, so long as you can say how it works, I mean anybody can, so that it’s like learning almost to speak something in a foreign language and not knowing what you’re saying but you say it anyway and I would say that’s my situation but I’m not happy with that, so you know I take personal measures to change that and I’ve got an old engine that I want to see inside, it’s more of a reassurance for me that I do have a good understanding of technical things even if you don’t need it.’ (FFF5). She went on to say that if she really wanted to then she could ask for the assistance of her co-workers who had garnered skills from a variety of professions and were ‘generous with their skills.’ This attempt to become conversant with tools and machinery and to go beyond merely reciting how machinery works was echoed in another interview with a female fire-fighter who told of how she wasn’t satisfied with ‘that’s just the way it is’ for an answer. She too described how she would try and research things more deeply because in order to understand it, she had to apply it.
While there is no place for ‘ritual tinkering’ in terms of fire-fighters equipment, practical skills are venerated. On more than one occasion I was informed that one of the perks of being employed in the Fire Service is that if you need something done (i.e. plumbing or electrical work) then there’s always someone who can do it for you. This skill sharing undoubtedly strengthens group cohesion and there is a definite pride in practical ability. The veneration of practical skills is also a response to the fact that members of the public often expect fire-fighters to be able to do anything, and deal with anything. Indeed a Sub-Officer informed me that even though certain situations might be better handled by someone else, fire-fighters often attempt to deal with them as they tend to be too proud to admit defeat. This was echoed by an older male fire-fighter who said that: ‘…if you’ve got any DIY you bring it in, tae me if I’m daeing something that’s practical, I could use that in a situation in the FB….I’ve learnt things in the FB that have benefited me outside and vice versa, it’s because...everybody expects you to be an expert in everything, like somebody might have a fire in their TV and we’re expected to take their TV tae bits and know what we’re doing, I havnae got a clue but there’s usually somebody on a watch who knows a wee bit, it’s amazing, well if you come intae the FB you say right, oh Wullie’s a brickie, right Wullie, in ye come or whatever’ (MFF9).
Furthermore previous experience of trades work allows fire-fighters to take on extra work to bolster their income on their four days off, thus providing a common interest. Clearly then, what Robinson and Mcllwee describe as the ‘craft ethic’ is in operation, whereby workers become physically immersed in ‘using tools, tearing machinery apart and building things.’ (1991 p.406). While ‘ritual tinkering’ is not tenable with respect to fire-fighters’ equipment, it clearly has its place in dealing with unexpected incidents requiring the skills of a particular trade. Furthermore, this skill sharing helps to forge bonds between workers, which are often carried outside of the workplace. Those without trades/manual work backgrounds are less likely to be able to participate in these activities which are above and beyond the call of duty. As women are more likely to have come from non-manual work backgrounds than their male counterparts, they may be less able and less comfortable engaging in those practical activities which are held in such esteem and serve to augment group solidarity. Of course, there are also a high number of men who have come to the Fire Service from non-manual work, but again they are more likely to be familiar and competent with technical/practical activities due to early socialisation experiences and more opportunity to engage in them. Two of the women in my sample admitted having taken personal steps to remedy this situation, to become more familiar with machinery and technology in order to redress the skills imbalance.
Fire stations are generally well equipped for leisure pursuits, as one fire-fighter observed: ‘it’s like a lads night in’. How this time is spent varies from watch to watch, but there is usually one communal activity that is engaged in by all fire-fighters. Interestingly, two females expressed dissatisfaction with the preferred stand-down activities on their watch, with one describing how she was one of 3 fire-fighters, on a watch of 18, who didn’t enjoy football. In terms of fitting into the watch, she noted that ‘…if you don’t like football…you’ve really got to try hard.’ (FFF9). Similarly, another female felt slightly outside of watch culture, as she couldn’t appreciate the communal stand-down activities of cards and golf, ‘…It doesn’t suit me, I’m not really into playing cards for two hours but I will
sit and have a quick game, more for the sake of fitting in than for the enjoyment of playing you know.’ (FFF5). This particular female came from a smaller watch (of 7 people) and described how the culture was one where everyone liked to be in the same place at the same time. She found this atmosphere slightly claustrophobic and felt that she would be better suited to a bigger watch (where there is more opportunity to dilute and do your own thing). The actual physical layout of the station may have some bearing on this, indeed the smaller station had no separate rooms and a large ‘banquet’ style table, perhaps inducing a forced sociability. In contrast one of the bigger stations visited had separate rooms, as well as a ‘quiet room’ and a mess room furnished with about 12 small tables designed to seat one or two fire-fighters, thus reducing the need to constantly engage with your fellow co-workers. Ultimately, Cockburn argues that male worker’s engagement in certain social activities positions women outside of ‘the boys club’ (1991).
In terms of people not particularly suited to the job, a couple of male fire-fighters (one younger, one older) contended that introverted people wouldn’t fit well into watch culture. An outgoing, sociable nature is undoubtedly an asset in a job that involves long periods of inactivity between call-outs. Indeed, fire-fighters who are able to amuse colleagues with anecdotes, jokes and stories are most able to engage in the constant banter which is so characteristic of station life. In terms of whether or not a ‘typical’ fire-fighter exists, one guy noted that this wasn’t true anymore, but that there used to be what you would call a ‘case’. A ‘case’ was a Fireman who had: ‘…the lingo, he’ll come out with a repartee you know, eh crack jokes all the time, that’s what you call a case you know?, em, good at his job whatever, you know, ones that are outspoken, extroverted…but a lot of that comes with the job anyway you know.’ (MFF6).
Indeed, in my own (admittedly limited) experience of watch culture the most striking thing about the interaction was the constant humour. I visited one of the stations on a Sunday afternoon during stand-down, and was invited to watch the football. The majority of those on duty had congregated in the mess room to watch Ireland versus Spain, which inspired shouts from one fire-fighter of: ‘Come on you tattie howkers’. His choice of words were particularly amusing considering the fact that there was an Irish fire-fighter on duty. Fire-fighters constantly rib one and other (usually in a light-hearted manner) and there are certain in-jokes which recur again and again. In a casual discussion with one of the fire-fighters, I discovered that he had been in the marines. Immediately after he had uttered the word ‘marines’ two of the other fire-fighters, as If on cue went ‘ting’ and mimicked playing a triangle. He laughed and told me that they wound him up by saying that he wasn’t really a marine but that he played the triangle in the band. This joke poked fun at the macho, marine image and was taken in good spirit. This banter was directed at the leading fire-fighter, and the fact that the others could joke with him demonstrates a slightly irreverent attitude towards authority (or at least this level of authority). It also shows his acceptance, for as one fire-fighter informed me, banter is directed at everyone and if you don’t get it then you’re not fully part of the watch. Indeed, the leading fire-fighter said ‘everybody gets hammered here, there’s no escape’. This is the common mode of interaction amongst fire-fighters, and as one young fire-fighter told me, in terms of teasing and ribbing: basically anything goes (with the exception of jokes about fire-fighters’ children - the only taboo).
These ‘verbal contests’ are also an integral part of the American Fire Service and according to Chetkovitch, have functional value in terms of relieving tension, promoting solidarity, providing entertainment and conditioning fire-fighters to ‘stay alert and simultaneously calm’ (1997 p.34). She also contends that masculinity is asserted through this mock combative interaction (which doesn’t actually involve conflict or disagreement). She contends that women (particularly middle class women) are unused to this style of interaction due to being socialised into more diplomatic communication styles. Thus, women are more likely to be ‘outside of’ this aspect of fire-fighting culture. Having said this, it is not inconceivable for women to participate in station banter and being included is likely to signify that a woman has been accepted. This would imply that Edelman’s suggestion that ‘Women enjoy a high degree of immunity’ (1997 p.30) is overly optimistic.
Many fire-fighters highlighted the positive side of watch culture in terms of the good laugh to be had, but others emphasised how sometimes, humour could be taken too far. Indeed, the close-knit conditions can also mean frayed tempers and acrimonious relations. When conflict occurs the watch can play an important role in arbitrating, as one fire-fighter noted ‘everybody’ll say…wait a minute, enough’s enough, cos you’re no wanting disharmony ken?’ (MFF3). However, many insisted that ‘when the bells go down, [arguments are] forgotten, it’s never carried beyond the Fire station, what it [referring to an incident] actually does is diffuse the situation’ (MFF1). This fire-fighter talked of how the public actually has no idea of what goes on within a fire station. He drew a distinction between the public image and private reality.
We may understand this situation in terms of Goffman’s notion of the front and back-stage of social reality. The Fire station constitutes the back-stage of social reality and the location of the incident the front-stage. As Goffman noted ‘...many Service occupations offer their clients a performance that is illuminated with dramatic expressions of…modernity, competence and integrity.’, something which fire-fighters are keen to uphold (1959 p.36).
On the subject of workplace humour, a female fire-fighter noted that it was ‘…very sexually oriented…I mean just stuff like sex and all that nonsense and football em…I won’t say I join in but it’s vey much, you know it’s like…(laughs), it’s like being part of a lads night out everyday.’ (FFF7). An older fire-fighter though contended that jokes of a sexual nature had been toned down since the entry of women, for fear of whether or not they would be considered appropriate. Indeed, a young male fire-fighter told of how, prior to the first female joining the watch, everyone was warned to be on their ‘best behaviour’. He felt that this was an unfair request as: ‘…the me that I am she might actually like and find funny…you know…until I know what she finds funny…but certainly if they’re going to say things to me then I should be allowed to retaliate, I mean in the sort of context.’(MFF3). Similarly, on the topic of whether women’s presence had forced alterations to watch interaction, an older male fire-fighter said ‘unfortunately’ yes, and added that it shouldn’t have (MFF6). This attitude demonstrates how there is a reluctance to change and how women are expected to assimilate into the culture of the Service.
The majority of females noted that they didn’t mind humour of a sexual nature as long as it wasn’t offensive to or directed at them. One female fire-fighter described how she was quite ‘…middle of the road, I don’t go overboard with crudeness and I can appreciate it and I can laugh at it as long as it’s not pushed too far and they don’t push it too far.’(FFF5). Despite this emphasis on acceptable and unacceptable levels of sexual humour, she admitted that she didn’t want to inhibit the men and insisted that she was basically ‘one of the guys’ (FFF5). This was echoed by an older male fire-fighter on another watch who said that there had been no changes to shift culture with the entry of the first female as ‘she behaves like us’ (MFF9). In terms of whether women can be considered a part of this culture, one female admitted that she wasn’t the kind of person who would stand at the mess room table and crack the jokes, but that she could laugh at them because many of them were genuinely funny (and often naïve).
Although women dealt with sexual humour on their own terms and talked of drawing boundaries, Chetkovich argues that women are excluded from this aspect of work culture as they are positioned as ‘objects’ in the discourse. It is her contention that the highly heterosexual culture of the workplace acts as a ‘constant reminder of women’s outsider status’ (1997 p.76). As women are usually alone on an all-male watch it may be difficult to challenge this aspect of workplace culture and (as Chetkovich notes) ill advised to do so when your safety is reliant on your co-workers. It seems that the easiest strategy available for women is to be ‘one of the lads’. This notion demonstrates how women are not deemed able to participate in such sexual banter and so are positioned as ‘honorary males’.
Much of the humour on the shift is also derived from stories related to fire-fighters’ mishaps,
in terms of both work-related and social events. One older fire-fighter described how every shift had it’s stories and anecdotes and how one station had kept a book chronicling the funny things which had had happened over the year. Goffman talks of how the telling and re-telling of such stories acts as ‘…a catharsis for anxieties, and a sanction for inducing individuals to be modest in their claims and reasonable in their projected expectations.’ (1959 p.25). Crucially, such stories have another function in terms of acting as ‘cautionary tales’, thus reducing the likelihood that such mistakes will be repeated in the future (Mellstrom 1995). Perhaps there is a greater need for humour (to reduce pressure) in an occupation frequently involving danger and coming face to face with horrific incidents.
Fire-fighters are exposed to death and harrowing sights as a routine part of their working life. Despite this, one fire-fighter noted that you never really become accustomed to this ‘…ye dinnae see it that often…no and, it’s…you’ve seen it before but the next time, you know it’s like “aaah christ”, I mean if you saw something like that you’d go “oh Jesus Christ” and I’m the same it’s just, I get paid to cut somebody out of a car or pull somebody out of a fire, it’s exact same, ye just get tore in, blank it off and then joke aboot it afterwards.’ (MFF9). An example of this is how, after witnessing a particularly harrowing fatality, one of the fire-fighters had commented ‘…we’ll no be eating pork scratchings for a while’. The humour is used as a coping mechanism and allows members of the watch to carry on. One female fire-fighter described how, as a probationer and faced with her first disturbing incident, she had been most shocked by the watches’ banter around the Mess room table afterwards. Fire-fighters are well aware that this humour may be unacceptable to those outside of the culture but see it as an integral part of the job and a natural way of dealing with stress. We may understand this in terms of Goffman’s concept of ‘role distance’ whereby individuals stand apart from their professional role, thus relieving tension and the seriousness of the situation (in Layder 1997).
Many fire-fighters expressed dissatisfaction with the rank system, in terms of the hierarchical structure and culture of showing automatic deference to those in the higher echelons of the Service. The divisions created by the rank system are immediately apparent to anyone who visits a station. The Station Officer has separate sleeping quarters from the other fire-fighters who sleep in dormitories. As one guy quipped: ‘they can fart in private’. They also have their own office for dealing with organisational and administrative tasks whereas the other fire-fighters live and work communally. This physical separation has a symbolic representation in the style of uniform worn by those in the promoted ranks. Whereas the watch wear black trousers and a black polo shirt, the Station officer wears a white shirt with shoulder stripes symbolising their rank. In my (brief) time spent at stations the Station Officers seemed to maintain a certain distance from the rest of the watch and didn’t engage in the communal stand-down activities. This distance is a definite turn off for many who enjoy the comfort and comradeship of the watch. Indeed, a Sub-Officer gave some insight into why many fire-fighters eschew promotion. She maintained that moving watches involves a certain degree of uncertainty and there is always the danger that you may encounter someone you dislike. While this is something many people face in their working life, in the Fire Service it takes on a different dimension. When faced with dangerous incidents you are reliant on your co-workers whom you have formed close bonds with, hopefully secure in the knowledge that they would: ‘…kill themselves trying to get you out if you were in trouble.’ (FFF12). Many fire-fighters are reluctant to move watches, as they don’t want to have to re-establish these relationships.
Moreover, there exists a culture which looks down on formal career advancement. As one fire-fighter said ‘I’m a fireman, I’m a career fireman, that’s all I’m interested in is being a fireman, I’m no interested in brown nosing for a desk job.’ (MFF9). He went on to say that he felt that promotion involved ‘playing a game’ and contended that few of the guys from his watch were promoted, suggesting that this is a collectively held attitude. He made a distinction between two types of people who are promoted. The first he categorised as the kind of person who likes the job and genuinely feels that s/he can improve it. The second he categorised as the type of person that ‘would sell their soul or stab their granny for promotion....but the guys that tend tae shoot through the ranks, what they tend tae do is, they have friendships tae suit what they’re doing.’ (MFF9). Thus those who attempt to network and generate friendships for career purposes are looked down on in comparison with ‘...other
guys that get promoted [who] stay on a watch for a long, long time [as] you tend to find that they’re quite practical and good at their job.’ (MFF9). This reveals how career success is evaluated differently in the Fire Service in that those who are practical and make genuine bonds are admired.
In light of this, being slightly outside of watch culture may actually be conducive for promotion purposes. For most fire-fighters, the best thing about the job was the comradeship, the crack and the social life and, for reasons previously discussed, women often couldn’t participate in such things as wholeheartedly as the men. Echoing Robinson and Mcllwee, Tonso argues that women’s ability is not at question, rather it is the fact that they do not seem to fit into workplace culture (1999). However, she goes a step further and argues that even for women who were highly capable, had the requisite interaction skills and had earned the respect of their male counterparts, ‘belonging’ was elusive. This is attributed to the fact that women were entering a field where there were no culturally established ways of being accepted as engineers. Indeed she argues that even when women behaved in ways that signified belonging for their male counterparts, this wasn’t interpreted in the same way.
In terms of formal career progression then, women may be the ideal candidates for promotion, although one female noted that even this wasn’t straightforward. Indeed, she described how ‘people are more likely to pass judgement on…well, me as a female first of all, secondly, cos I’ve got my ticket and I can act up to a leading fire-fighter post, which puts me in charge of a machine.’ (FFF7). This is echoed by Edelman who argues that ‘a woman will be thus perceived as failing because she is a woman, a man because he is not suitable.’ (1997 p.33). Thus, while a woman is likely to face additional performance pressure in the promotion stakes, achieving informal career success and actually ‘belonging’ may be even more problematic.
· Team-work is crucial in the Fire Service. ‘Fitting-in’ is considered essential and while
· there is no place for solo showing off, a ‘craft ethic’ is clearly in operation. Women may be less comfortable engaging in these activities (which are held in high esteem and serve to augment group solidarity) than their male counterparts. Indeed, two females admitted attempting to remedy the skills imbalance.
· Stand-down activities take the form of male bonding sessions and a couple of the women expressed dissatisfaction with the preferred communal activity on their watches. One woman told of how she would participate more for the sake of ‘fitting-in’ than actual enjoyment.
· Interaction on the watch is characterised by constant banter. This is a typical assertion of working class masculinity which women and middle class men may less able to engage in.
· Much of the humour on the watch is sexually oriented. The women in my sample dealt with this on their own terms and as long as it wasn’t offensive to them, could laugh along with the men. The preferred strategy for dealing with this was to be ‘one of the lads’. Ultimately though, the women were slightly outside of this interaction and didn’t fully participate.
· Women’s performance is likely to be judged more harshly than their male counter-parts and their suitability for promotion questioned.
· Not fully ‘belonging’ and being slightly outside the watch may actually be conducive to formal career progression. Conversely, it may be more difficult to achieve the kind of informal success that is admired within the Service.
The dissertation explored the occupational culture of the Fire Service as a ‘gendered social institution’ and the ways in which women’s entry, integration and acceptance are divergent from that of men’s (Fielding 1994 p.46).
In chapter three, it was argued that we must recognise fire-fighting as representative of a certain kind of working class masculinity, which is particularly venerated in this era of declining skilled-manual employment. There are traditional pathways into fire-fighting and those with past experience of manual work may have a higher degree of confidence in terms of their ability to do the job and fitting into workplace culture. Women who enter generally come from non-manual backgrounds and tend to have come round to the prospect of a career in fire-fighting later than their male counterparts. Indeed, fire-fighting is not an obvious career choice for women and there are barriers to women even contemplating a career in the Service. Part of this may be attributed to the ‘all-action hero’ image, in which the stereotypically ideal fire-fighter is big, brawny and male. In order to make the workforce more diverse, the Service needs to disseminate more information regarding the actual physical standards required. Furthermore, it would be beneficial to emphasise the diverse strengths that individuals from different backgrounds can bring to the team. Many potential recruits may be unaware of the range of situations and challenges that confront fire-fighters in their working life and, in light of recent drives to increase the importance of community education, those with good communication skills may be particularly suited to this aspect of the work.
In light of these factors, positive action open days seem like a good way of introducing women to the Service in a non-threatening way. They allow women to attempt some of the physical tasks and enable them to find out about Fire Service culture. However, such measures have been construed as symbolising the ‘freezing out’ of the white male and have created a high degree of resentment among men in the service. This is compounded by a lack of understanding of the difference between positive action and positive discrimination and a perception that standards are being lowered in order to facilitate women’s entry. It is argued
that whether this is true or untrue, the pervasive nature of this belief is likely to have a negative impact on women’s acceptance and progression. One female described the psychological strain caused by the knowledge that people believed she only got into the Service because of her gender. It seems that this is exacerbated by the current climate of fear of recrimination in the Service, which means that such beliefs cannot be voiced openly. This is in spite of the fact that most fire-fighters have had diversity training, although this example demonstrates how such training can actually be counter-productive if delivered in the wrong way. The purpose of positive action measures and the Service’s stance on the entry of women should be made clear, with opportunities made for fire-fighters to ask questions and discuss these issues. In a reversal of conventional logic, current rhetoric posits that it is men, not women who are the vulnerable party in the service (despite their majority status).
Chapter four discussed women’s and men’s integration and it was argued that although men and women alike found the military culture of the Service slightly anachronistic and (to a certain extent) uncalled for, it may be particularly off-putting for those from non-traditional backgrounds. Having said this, a certain level of discipline is necessary and it is important to strike a balance in this respect.
In terms of men’s response to women’s entry, it was argued that we cannot talk about men as a homogenous group. Three divergent responses were identified, the first being men who attempt to actively sabotage women’s career progression by overt or covert means. This was revealed by the female whose own instructor had attempted to make her fail by increasing the difficulty of certain physical tasks, providing a clear example of ‘boundary heightening’ (Kanter 1977 p.221). Similarly, the longest serving female fire-fighter’s experience on her first watch demonstrates how more subtle forms of discrimination can be just as damaging to women’s career. These women’s experiences provide dramatic examples of the ways in which men may attempt to preserve masculine work spaces. However it should be noted that not all men behaved in such a fashion. Influential members of the watch can act as ‘champions of equality’ and actually facilitate women’s acceptance. A more common response though was to associate women’s entry with the demise of the old Fire Service
culture. Many lament the passing of the old culture with its certainties regarding appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. The current climate appears to be one of fear and confusion with respect to fairness and equality issues and there is a conception that such policies have constrained behaviour to an unnecessary degree. Having said this, we must be careful of over-generalising and should also take into account generational factors that may influence men’s response. There is some evidence to suggest that younger men are more comfortable with the prospect of working alongside women than the ‘older hands’.
Despite the divergence in men’s responses there were threads of commonality in terms of women’s experience of watch integration. Women’s acceptance seemed less immediate than men’s, and there is evidence to suggest that the watch alters its established style of interaction in order to ‘suss out’ the new female. Once comfortable with her, watch members seem to revert back to their normal style, as one older fire-fighter said ‘then it’s boys will be boys’. This demonstrates how women are expected to ‘fit into’ existing watch culture.
The close-knit watch culture and importance placed on team-work make ‘belonging’ crucial. In Chapter five certain aspects of watch culture were identified which made belonging elusive for women. One of these was the emphasis placed on the ‘craft ethic’ whereby male workers become involved in tinkering with machinery, taking apart and constructing things (Robinson and Mcllwee 1991 p.406). These activities, which are over and above the call of duty, are partly a response to occupational demands and partly a way of augmenting group solidarity on the watch (by skill sharing). Some women expressed a lack of confidence in terms of being able to engage in such activities and had taken measures to redress the skills imbalance.
Similarly, members of the watch tend to engage in at least one communal pursuit to entertain themselves whilst on stand-by. These activities resemble male bonding sessions and a couple of female fire-fighters felt slightly outside of watch culture as they couldn’t participate as enthusiastically as the men. In some ways the actual physical layout of stations can contribute to this, in that stations with limited outlets for individual pursuits tend to induce a forced sociability (which some fire-fighters find claustrophobic).
Another factor mentioned was the established style of interaction on the watch, which is usually characterised by constant humour and banter. Chetkovich discusses how these ‘verbal contests’ are a means of asserting a particular form of working class masculinity (1997 p.34). It is her contention that women (whose mode of communication tends to be less extroverted and less assertive) are positioned outside of this aspect of Fire Service culture as they are less able to actively participate in it.
It was also argued that the overtly heterosexual culture of the service and fire-fighter’s engagement in telling jokes of a sexual nature ostracises women who are (generally speaking) the objects of this discourse. It should be noted though that female fire-fighters were by no means the ‘passive victims’ of sexual humour. All of the women I spoke with told of how they dealt with this aspect of watch culture on their own terms and drew boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable forms of humour. It should also be recognised that humour has a certain functional value in terms of releasing performance pressure and providing ‘role distance’ in the (frequently stressful) occupation of fire-fighting (Goffman in Layder 1997). It may be difficult and ill advised to challenge perceived unacceptable forms of humour when it provides an important release from the demands of the job.
The familial character of the watch with its strongly defined in-group/out-group boundaries, may be a primary factor in terms of making the service resistant to change. As Fielding notes, strong group identities are usually forged at the expense of another group who are excluded (1994 p.47). It seems that the most common strategy employed by women in the highly masculine culture of the Service is that of being ‘one of the guys’. This idea of being an ‘honorary male’ reveals how women are positioned outside of the culture to the extent that they are thought not to be able to participate in it on their own terms, as a woman. Women for the most part, are expected to assimilate into the existing culture of the service.
Furthermore, it is argued that in the context of formal career progression, being slightly removed from watch culture may actually be advantageous. By this reckoning then, although women’s competency may be scrutinised more closely than their male counterparts, progressing through the ranks may be easier to achieve than the alternative model of success in the Service, in which belonging and forging genuine friendships are considered as important as practical ability.
Ultimately though, the women I spoke with loved their work and were busy negotiating ways of being accepted in the hitherto all-male sphere of the Fire Service. On a positive note it seems that contact with individual women on the watch can erode sexism. Indeed, women were and could be accepted in fire-fighting roles but the process of achieving this was different to that of their male counterparts.
Segregation by Industrial groupings
90% of employees in the construction industry are men
80% of workers in the energy and water industries
In the manufacturing industry 2 thirds of managers and administrators and 78% or more of those working as plant & machine operatives (or in craft & related occupations3) are men.
Women constitute the majority of the public sector workforce (where equivalent jobs are substantially less well paid than in the private sector).
Source: Women and Men In Britain: The Labour Market EOC 1999
In engineering where 90% of all jobs are held by men (even in the ‘cleaner’ ‘softer’ realm of software engineering).
Men constitute the greatest majority of the workforce within the sphere of business and finance (where just 30% of associate professionals are women).
Women have a stronghold in terms of the ‘caring’ professions where 87% of associate health professionals and 90% of nurses are women.
· While they make up 64% of the teaching profession, a substantial majority of women are to be found in primary school teaching (86%).
The concentration of women within lower paying sectors is reflected in the situation of health professionals where they make up 40% of the total workforce, but are disproportionately (61%), found in pharmacy/pharmacology (jobs which are characterised by lower pay than other medical professions).
Source: Women and Men In Britain: Professional Occupations, EOC, 2001
The biggest employment sector for women is within clerical, secretarial and sales occupations where they constitute 70% of the workforce.
Source: Facts about men and women in Scotland: New Earnings Survey, ONS, EOC 2001)
To Begin with –
‘Thanks very much for volunteering to take part in the research project. This is for my sociology dissertation on the role of the fire-fighter, what it’s like to do the job, and work culture of the fire service.
I’m interested in this because my dad is a fire-fighter and he encouraged me to join. I attended an open day for Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade but in the end decided not to join (I’m still interested in the job though).
All information will be treated as totally confidential and no names, stations or brigades will be cited in the finished report.
To get an accurate record of the interview do you mind if it is recorded?
Topics that may be relevant in the interview:
Ø Beginning/Context/Entering the brigade
1.1 How long have you been in the Fire Service?
So you were…age when you joined?
Did the jobs that you had before you joined prepare you in any way for work in the fire service?
What made you join the fire service?
(Did you know any fire-fighters before U joined?)
1.2 What appealed to you about the job? (knowledge of it through family/media representations/risk/thrills/fun/danger/security/life-style/camaraderie).
Did you consider any of the other public services? (the police force, paramedics, the army etc)
1.3 How did you feel when you found out that you got the fire service?
I’ve heard that the training period is pretty intense, was it?
What were the instructors like? (were there any good/bad ones)
Is everyone treated equally by them?
Is it like boot camp? What is ‘beasting’?
What were your relationships like with the other trainees? (supportive/competitive/collaborative/were there many women on the training course).
How does it prepare you for the job?
In what ways did it live up to your expectations, in what ways did the reality differ?
Ø The job itself
2.1 What did it feel like when you first joined?
What about your first incident that you were called out to? Can you remember it?
2.2 Were the more experienced fire-fighters helpful/ give you advice or leave you to your own devices?
How are new fire-fighters received?
Do new they get a bit of ribbing?
2.3 Can you describe a typical day?
Are you involved in the community side of the job?
What do you do during periods of stand-down?
What aspects of the job do you enjoy/dislike?
2.4 Do you thrive on the element of danger/risk?
Have you ever been in a particularly dangerous/risky situation? Did/has this affected you?
Have you known anyone who has been injured in an incident?
Is it a particularly stressful/upsetting job?
Ø Watch Culture/Relationships with co-workers
3.1 You work really closely together, don’t you?
Is it hard to get used to this?
I can’t imagine what it’s like to eat and sleep with my co-workers, how would you describe it?
3.2 What kind of colleagues do you like to work with? What kind of people don’t you like to work with?
Can you think of a fire-fighter that you really respect? Why?
What makes a good fire-fighter?
3.3.1 Obviously everyone is an individual and you are all different but what do you think you have in common with your co-workers?
Is there such a thing as a ‘typical’ fire-fighter?
Are there a range of ages on most watches? Old and young? Do older fire-fighters command the respect of younger ones? Should they? Have you had any particularly good advice?
3.4 Do you have much contact with higher ranking officers? (us and them – strong ties)
Do you have much opportunity to use your own initiative?
Have you heard any other stories of fire-fighters who have had particularly good or bad experiences on their watch?
3.5 Do you have a good laugh with your co-workers?
What kind of stuff do you joke about?
Are there any good jokes about fire-fighters?
What kind of stories go around? (insiders and outsiders)
Do you often socialise outside of work?
Ø Changes within the Fire Service
6.1 Recently, the FB has undergone a lot of changes and is trying to modernise, become more diverse, have you noticed any changes?
Has women’s entry into the Fire Services resulted in changes in the way that fire-fighters interact with each other? (if woman do you think you are treated in the same way as your co-workers).
Also (if female – do you work with other women – would you like to?)
How have they been generally received within the FS/ old/young is there a difference?
There seems to be a bit of a backlash against fairness and equality issues within the brigade, would you agree? Why do you think this is?
In your personal opinion, is everyone treated the same within the FB?
Do you think that certain types of people face especial difficulties when they enter the FS?
Why is this?
Ø Job Image/ and Identity
4.1 What was the reaction of your family/friends to your joining the service?
Were they concerned about the danger/risk aspect of the job?
4.2 What kind of reaction do you get from the public?
Do ff’s enjoy a high status in the community?
Say – I’ve heard that recently brigades have had bother with being pelted with stuff – attacked when they are trying to put out fires – have you experienced, heard about this?
4.3 What about the public image of the job? Heroes or people who play pool all day? Does it match the reality of the job? (Can you identify with the image?)
4.4 It is quite a ‘sexy’ job, does it offer any advantages in terms of relationships?
If woman – how do men/other women react to it? (Do you feel any pressure to live up to certain expectations of you? (is there a contradiction between the image and yourself).
Have you had any particularly negative or positive reactions?
What’s the image that you associate with fire-fighting? What aspects are important to you?
Ø Work/Life Balance
5.1 How do you switch off when you are not working?
Do you like the shift system? It’s 4 days on and 4 days off isn’t it?
Does this affect your relationships outside of work? (partners/children)
Are there any benefits/disadvantages of this system?
Does being a firefighter change your outlook on life in any way?
If you could change anything about your work, what would it be?
How do you see your future in the fire-Service, will you try for promotion?
Ø Finally, if I were to join, what advice would you give me?
Ø At the end of the interview – thank the respondent for taking part and ask if they have any additional information to give, or have any additional experiences that they would like to discuss, think would be relevant to the research.
Scottish Brigade Staff Levels at 31st March 1999 (source: Fairness and Equality: Guidance Framework for the Fire Service in Scotland (2000) On-line Publication
Dumfries & Galloway
Highlands & Islands
Lothian & Borders
Fire-fighter’s main duties are fire-fighting, dealing with emergency situations (such as road traffic accidents) and fire prevention.
Women constitute less than 1% of the total number of whole-time fire-fighters employed in Scotland. The number of female whole-time fire-fighters employed in L&B fire brigade in 1999 was 17. There are now roughly 49 females employed in L&BFB which has a workforce of 950 meaning that they constitute 5% of fire-fighters (The Scotsman 27/9/01).
Control staff receive emergency calls and input the addresses of call outs into a computer system which contains street plans and details of high risk buildings as well as information regarding hazardous materials, in order to assess the type of appliance (fire engine) suitable for the call-out.
The statistics show that this occupation is dominated by women who make up roughly 90% of the control room workforce.
Retained fire-fighters are employed on a part-time basis and generally hold other jobs. They can be called out at any time of the day or night and often have an agreement with their full-time employer which allows them to attend incidents during normal working hours. Women are better represented in the retained service where they constitute 3.1% of the workforce.
N.B: This study focuses on whole-time fire fighters. The reason for this is that for ‘retained’ fire-fighters, employment within the fire-service is generally secondary. Those who work full-time have chosen it as their career. The issues involved in part-time work are likely to differ from those raised by full-time employment in the fire-service.
My contact details
29th of May 02 (Page one of two)
For the attention of Leading Fire-fighter (name)
I write with reference to the previously mentioned dissertation on the Fire Service (discussed during our telephone call last night). I thought it would be useful to send you some information on my research project, so that people are clear as to what it entails and are comfortable about taking part.
I am doing a Masters degree in Social Research at Edinburgh University and am interested in finding out about what it’s like to be a fire-fighter, what kind of people go into the fire brigade and how they cope with the demands of the job. I’d like to find out what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ and to understand work culture, the ways in which work affects life outside the fire service, and the pros and cons of the job.
My interest in the topic comes from family connections in the Fire Service and a personal interest in the job (as I have considered joining and attended a recruitment open day a couple of years ago).
I am hoping to speak with roughly six volunteers from Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade who are willing to discuss general aspects of the job. I thought that perhaps the fire-fighters could be drawn from two watches (so three from each). An older male and a younger male, as well as a female fire-fighter. It is hoped that this will help me to understand the range of experiences within the Fire Service and the ways in which it has changed in recent years. (Page two could be used as a ‘flyer’ or information leaflet to explain the project to potential volunteers).
The interviews would take roughly forty minutes to one hour and would be totally confidential, very relaxed and informal (unstructured in style, not survey based). They would give fire-fighters an opportunity to discuss/reflect on aspects of the job.
The interview would cover the following topics:
· The appeal of the job
· Experience of training
· Aspects of job satisfaction/dissatisfaction
· Work relationships
· Public Image of the job
· Achieving a work/life balance
· Recent changes in the Service
Central Scotland and Lothian and Borders Brigades will receive a copy of the finished report which will help broaden understanding of the common and diverse experiences of fire-fighters, the challenges faced by them and aspects of job-satisfaction/dissatisfaction.
I would be very grateful if your station participated in this research project and look forward to hearing from you soon.
Firefighters invited to take part in Research Project
Ø I am a student doing a Masters degree in Social Research at Edinburgh University and am interested in finding out about what it’s like to be a fire-fighter, what kind of people go into the fire brigade and how they cope with the demands of the job. I’d like to find out what goes on ‘behind the scenes’ and to understand work culture, the ways in which work affects life outside the fire service, and the pros and cons of the job.
Ø My interest in the topic comes from family connections in the Fire Service and a personal interest in the job (as I have considered joining and attended a recruitment open day a couple of years ago).
Ø I would like to speak to 3 volunteers from this station (who are willing to discuss general aspects of the job).
Ø To reflect the modern Fire service I would like to speak with two males, an older male and a younger male, as well as a female fire-fighter.
Ø It is hoped that this will help me to understand the range of experiences within the Fire Service and the ways in which it has changed in recent years.
Ø Interviews will be very relaxed and informal (unstructured in style, no surveys) and will last roughly 40-60 minutes. They will also be totally confidential (no names will be used!) and will take place at the most convenient time for the brigade.
Ø This will provide an opportunity for fire-fighters to discuss/reflect on the job.
Ø The finished report will help broaden understanding of the common and diverse experiences of fire-fighters, the challenges faced by them and aspects of job-satisfaction/dissatisfaction.
Description of Physically Demanding Tasks at Gullane
The first involved carrying a live casualty down a ladder from the third floor of a building. The ‘casualty’ was selected from the trainees and she explained that her course had sixty people, five of whom were female. The fifty-five males who had to carry someone carried her as she was the lightest there (weighing just eight stone), whereas the lightest guy that she could carry weighed eleven and a half stone. Thus she concluded that while this was challenging for anyone, it was particularly taxing for her, as she didn’t have the option of carrying someone lighter than herself. The second physical requirement that she pinpointed was the ‘introduction to the 13.5’, which is the big ladder on top of the appliance (fire-engine) which weighs ten kilos and is carried by four people. In order to pass the course trainees must run around with it for two hours. If the ladder is dropped more than three times then you are re-coursed until you are physically capable of doing it. She told of how her previous job as a concert pianist had actually stood her in good stead for this task, in that she had developed unusually strong hands which didn’t let her down in terms of grip strength. Indeed, she noted that the difficulty some experience with this was: ‘…not exclusive to women, I mean a lot of men have flimsy hands, if you work in an office you’re not going to have strong hands.’ (FFF5).
Physical Proximity/Shared Sleeping Quarters
The entry of women has caused fire-fighters to consider things that they previously would have taken for granted. While women generally have separate changing and washing facilities, they sleep in the same dormitory as the men. The actual physical proximity of men and women in the sleeping quarters means that precautions have to be taken in order to ensure the comfort of female fire-fighters. One older male noted that you were no longer allowed to enter the dorm if there is one female in it ‘…it’s no anything, it’s just tae stop one person saying anything against…ken cos it wiz all new when women and that came in.’ (MFF3). The implications of this statement are that this rule has also been imposed to ensure that false accusations are not made against any individuals.
In terms of the sleeping arrangements, a probationary female fire-fighter described how she had to take into consideration what would be appropriate night-wear as the only woman on a male dorm ‘…I sleep in a t-shirt and jogging suit bottoms which is perfectly respectable and I never need to worry about throwing the covers off in the middle of the night and you know, sort of lying there without much on.’ (FFF5). Thus, she was concerned about the possible sexual disruption created by being the only female on an all-male dormitory.
In terms of the ranks having separate sleeping quarters, one female fire-fighter agreed that this did cause divisions. She explained that when she was promoted, because of her position as sub-officer, she was expected to sleep in a separate room with the Station Officer. This would mean a man and a woman sleeping alone in a separate room together, which would cause problems. So she ended up offering to sleep in the dormitory with the rest of the watch. When this was proposed one of the fire-fighters commented ‘…aye that’s alright but we won’t be able to complain about the ranks anymore.’ This was said in jest but she recognised that there was an element of seriousness to it. Indeed, she said there was a need for those on the watch to have some distance from the ranks. These two examples show how the presence of women in male sleeping quarters has resulted in changes to established patterns of behaviour.
An Example of a Physical Initiation Rite
The physical ‘tests of courage’ were shrouded in secrecy in order to maximise the effect. One older fire-fighter provided an example of the ritual: ‘…a favourite was (if I can describe this) we’d blindfold the individual and put a bag which covered their head so there was no way they could see what was happening and we got a bench laid out and got them to stand on the bench right? And you tie their hands behind their back and somebody would pour the smallest amount of petrol in a cap and just waft it under their nose and they’d hear the petrol can rattling yeah? And then you get cups of water and just start throwing water over them and they think they’re covered in petrol and you say, you gonnae pass me they matches, and there’s a lot of shouting, a lot of banging going on, banging of doors and things going on and you’re standing there shaking and we’re striking matches and when he hears the matches strike he goes ‘My god!’ and he starts tae panic and he jumps'. (MFF1).
Fairness and Equality Issues have been pushed ‘too hard’
The idea that fairness and equality issues have been taken too far and that the Service is overly protective of female fire-fighters was a recurring theme throughout the interviews. Indeed, men and women alike expressed concern over the possibility that false allegations of sexual discrimination could be made by unscrupulous women in the Service. As one female contended:
‘I think maybe it has come from some people who have pushed issues far too hard, feminists who have pushed things too hard em, and you know people do hear so often of cases which are brought to court and thrown out cos it turns out the girl was lying about something, now obviously there’s a lot of abuse in the workplace, there’s a lot of harassment goes on em, but I think that you know because there’s been a lot of cases when it has been untrue, that’s where it’s stemming from you know there’s almost an attitude of now that girls will lie if they fancy getting at you, I mean there’s always the worry that, say I didn’t get on with my watch or potentially if a girl came to the station and she didn’t like somebody all she would have to do is point a finger and that leaves a nasty taste. I don’t think that would ever, ever happen in this Brigade cos I know all the girls and nobody would do that but it’s just that it could be done and the fact that it could be done is what leaves a nasty taste.’ (FFF5)
Similarly a young male fire-fighter admitted that:
‘What concerns me is the first time something goes wrong and em, there might very well be a backlash cos I can see, it’s things like, I mean I know that positive discrimination can go too far sometimes….it worries me that one of these days somebody’s going to make a complaint about a man and it might just get taken too far cos they’re trying to positively discriminate eh, rather than just turning around and saying look, it’s happened, slap on the wrist, it’s nothing anyway, it’s something that’s been said and stuff gets said everyday you know? And if it’s to a guy it’s accepted or it’s no accepted you know? If it goes too far it’s happened that there’s been people who’ve had personality clashes, they don’t get on so mibbae they move shifts and it’s forgotten about em, just a wee bit concerned that they might take it too far and say well we don’t want that and the person gets the sack you know?’ (MFF4)
These admissions demonstrate how there is almost a feeling that men are the vulnerable party in the Fire Service now, despite their majority status.
The tasks themselves are apportioned on the basis of a rota system and the actual requirements of the job. For example, two of the fire-fighters would be assigned to breathing apparatus duty and another would take care of the hose-reel. If fire-fighters are required to enter a burning building then they do so in pairs. If there happens to be a new start on the watch then he/she is generally matched up with a more experienced fire-fighter. Should the job require the use of breathing apparatus, then a fire-fighter is assigned to set up the ‘echo board’ in order to keep track of the time spent in the building, how much oxygen is left etc. Certain fire-fighters are assigned to the role of driver and these people are usually experienced fire-fighters (as the job entails a lot of responsibility). In terms of whether the older fire-fighters are given lighter duties, I was informed that this wouldn’t necessarily be the case as everyone on the watch is expected to be able to do everything and many of the tasks are assigned to people on a rota basis.
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Toward Diversity: Promoting Cultural Change – The Fire Service Equal Opportunities Action Plan (1 June 2000 – 31 May 2001), The Equal Opportunities Task Group, The Home Office
Toward Diversity II: Commitment to Cultural Change – The Second Fire Service Equal Opportunities Action Plan (Dec 2001), EO Task Group, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions: London
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Equal Opportunities Publications
Women and Men in Britain: Professional Occupations, EOC 2001
Women and Men in Britain: The Labour Market, EOC 1998
Women and Men in Britain: The Lifecycle of Inequality, EOC 2001
Women and Men in Britain: Sex Stereotyping from School to work, EOC 2001
Women and Men in Britain: Facts about Women & Men In Scotland, EOC 2001
 The discrepancy in start dates may reflect a more traditional attitude towards women in the job in Scotland than in England
 This figure refers to the situation in the UK as a whole
 Women constitute roughly less than 10% of workers in this category. Source: EO & the Fire Service by Tom Bucke (Labour Force Survey, OPCS 1992)
 Another opportunity came along, however, my experience reflects a wider pattern. These ‘open days’ attract a high level of interest but a small percentage of women apply. (source: Fire Service Inspectorate).
 Race is an important issue, however, it was decided that it could not be adequately dealt with within the scope of this dissertation.
 ‘Fire Service’ is used in a generic sense, however given the special nature of Lothian and Borders Fire Service (at the forefront of female recruitment), the occupational culture(s) is likely to differ from those brigades where women are seriously under-represented.
 Although ‘Culture’ is used here it should be recognised that this is not meant in a monolithic sense. Indeed, there are likely to be variations from watch to watch and brigade to brigade. However, occupational demands mean that there are commonalities which transcend locality.
 This study focuses on full-time fire-fighters. The issues involved in part-time fire-fighting are likely to be different (for part-timers Fire Service employment is usually secondary).
 Information ascertained from observation was written in note form as soon as I had left the station.
 ‘A Report of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Fire Services for Scotland: Equal Opportunities Thematic Inspection Report 1998 (The Scottish Office)
 One station was an exception to this rule, where the interviews took place in the ‘quiet room’. A place designed for those who wish to have some solitude
 ‘Watch’ = shift. As the fire-service is on 24 hour availability ‘watches’ involve long periods of ‘stand by’ (waiting for a call out). Thus, working together also entails living together.
 He sent key Brigade reports, statistics and invited me to a Fairness and Equality meeting held at the Scottish Executive office.
 These women responded to a flier posted in their station.
 Interest has come from students, government, other brigades and the media
 Fire-fighters tend to be drawn from socio-economic groups C1, C2 and D. Source: EO & The Fire Service by Tom Bucke, Home Office
 This process involves developing theory from analysis of the data itself, rather than from abstract notions (Glaser and Strauss 1967)
 Some of the material expanding on certain issues was relegated to appendices.
 It should be noted that all names used in the dissertation are pseudonyms
 This is not encouraged by the Service though
 The application process generally takes about one year minimum
 This exists because there is a general belief that it is easier for women to get into the Fire Service than men (which is something that will be discussed later, in greater depth).
 Doing courses and taking on jobs which would facilitate their entry
 In fact, this was adopted by one Scottish Brigade for a period of time but subsequently stopped as it created an expectation of employment, which often didn’t materialise. Source: Fire Inspectorate: Scottish Executive
 This involves visiting schools and workplaces and delivering workshops on fire prevention.
 This is something that will be discussed later and in greater depth in Chapter 3
 Potential candidates had to be within 1.68 and 1.93 metres and under 30 years of age
 Not because of a lack of strength but because of having the wrong attitude, i.e. no perseverance and lacking a strong work ethic
 Reporting Scotland 4th March 2002
 Indeed, health and safety regulations decree that fire-fighters avoid unnecessary strain in terms of lifting heavy objects. As well as this tools and equipment have obviated the need for brute strength.
 Such as running out the hose, trying on breathing apparatus, climbing up ladders etc.
 Trainees may return home at the weekend
 With officers checking up on recruits to see that they are in bed by a reasonable hour for example.
 Fire Brigade Union
 One of the young probationary fire-fighters I spoke to informed me that the training course was no longer individually competitive as they had got rid of the ‘fire-master’s prize’. This had happened just before he commenced with his training (about a year and a half ago). He explained that the new ethos was one of ‘Who are we to say that someone is better or worse than anyone else?’.
 Those who were more adept with technical activities would assist those who were more academically minded, and vice versa.
 As mentioned previously, it is common for fire-fighters to pick up minor injuries during the course of their training. This particular injury wasn’t considered serious and she was able to complete the tasks to a satisfactory degree.
 (FFF5 – 55 males to 5 females), (FFF10 – 50 males to 3 females) (FFF12 unknown number of males, though probably roughly 55 to 2 females)
 The ‘white shirt’ refers to the different type of uniform worn by officers.
 Women in all-male communal sleeping quarters has caused fire-fighters to question things they had previously taken for granted. See appendix 7 for further discussion of this.
 Of course, there were exceptions to this rule and one of the more experienced fire-fighters informed me that they had never, ever engaged in such initiation rites on his watch.
 Whose testimony is likely to be accurate as he is affiliated with the Fire Brigade Union and has represented fire-fighters at employment tribunals etc.
 Such as being tied to the drill tower and hosed down with water etc.
 See appendix 9 for further discussion of this.
 She was the first female fire-fighter on this particular watch
 It also shows how this could work in a reverse fashion and how women’s acceptance could be hindered
 Who at that time was one of only five female fire-fighters in Scotland
 In terms of the strict hierarchical structure, the fact that promotion is largely based on length of service, the dangerous nature of the work, the need to operate as a team to achieve collective goals and the notion that people who enter the work do so as a ‘calling’.
 This may be attributed to the fact that he trained alongside women at Gullane
 As one of the women felt that the path had been cleared for her with respect to the fact that she wasn’t the first female fire-fighter on the watch.
 Because of the shift system (requiring them to work when the majority of people have days off) fire-fighters tend to socialise a lot outside of work.
 Such as the various uses for different pieces of equipment and the best ways to tackle certain incidents
 She also described how she felt that as a woman she hadn’t grown up with any kind of technical knowledge in contrast to a lot of men who as kids ‘…will have had their faces under bonnets and things.’ (FFF5)
 Because of the high number of those with trades backgrounds in the Service.
 Who had been employed in office work before joining the Fire Service
 Which isn’t encouraged but many fire-fighters do.
 Fire-fighters usually collect money in order to buy things for the station Indeed in the stations visited there was a generally a television, video, play-station, pool table and at one station (as the leading fire-fighter proudly informed me), a DVD player and surround sound system.
 In terms of a TV room away from the communal mess room, or a quiet room for those seeking solitude.
 Although one added that of course there had been introverted people who were good at their job. He also maintained that due to the culture of the job, an introvert could become an extrovert.
 A few fire-fighters chose to sit in the darkened TV room (perhaps because there had been a shift night out the night before).
 A ‘tattie howker’ is a potato picker. It is a slightly derogatory term for Irish people but in this context was not delivered or meant in an insulting way.
 This fire-fighter also told me that wives, girlfriends and mothers were the usual butt of the jokes but that none of them were intended in a malicious way.
 My emphasis
 Indeed one fire-fighter informed me that wives, girlfriends and relationships bear the brunt of the jokes.
 Although what this entails exactly is uncertain.
 Promotion is firstly linked to the appointment and promotion regulations which stipulate a minimum of service required for Leading fire-fighter, Sub Officer and Station Officer. They also require the passing of statutory promotion exams for these three levels. After attaining the basic requirements of the regulations one may apply for advertised vacancies and compete with other qualified candidates.
 In the context of engineering
 ‘ticket’ refers to having passed the requisite exam which allows progression up the career ladder.
 Which have been held by a number of Brigades
 The latter of which is of course illegal
 Anecdotal evidence would suggest that Equal Opportunities and diversity issues have been delivered in a rather heavy handed manner. A more collaborative approach in which fire-fighters may ask questions in an open environment may be preferable.
 Because of the predominantly white, male composition of the military
 Such as a quiet room, or separately spaced tables and chairs in the Mess room (as opposed to a ‘banquet’ style table).