Fire service has a leadership crisis

The issues facing women in the fire service are telling of a systemic crisis of leadership.

By Cheryl Horvath

After my last article, I received emails from various people around the country. Some offered thanks and support for continuing to carry the message on the importance of a diverse workforce.

Some gave me even more material to use in future columns about issues that women are confronted with. And some asked permission to reprint the article, which was nice recognition and another avenue to expose the issues women face across more audiences.

I have had the good fortune of meeting some amazing people in the fire service, from firefighters to chiefs, to magazine editors, to leaders of affinity organizations, to scholars, to political leaders, to vendors, and to members of other public safety professions confronting the same challenges we have in the fire service.

Throughout these brief interactions, I have met few brave enough to stand in front of a crowd and voice their heartfelt support on the issue of diversity in the context of their own failures. It has been a long haul of shaking my head wondering when the fire service would finally “get it.”

Reason for hope
Why is it still an issue bringing women on the job, promoting women to front-line officer positions, or considering women in chief officer positions? Women lead Fortune 500 companies, women are in high-ranking positions in the military, two women have run for vice president, and we have real potential for a woman running in the next presidential election.

Recently, I received reason to hope that maybe some fire service leaders are finally getting it. IAFC President Bill Metcalf and Tucson Fire Chief Jim Critchley spoke at a conference hosted by the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services.

President Metcalf admitted that the fire service has failed in promoting diversity. I could not believe my ears when I first heard the words.

I made eye contact with various people sitting around me, and all of us had the same look of shock on our faces.

Then, Chief Critchley said that he had been confronted the day before by someone who challenged him to do more for women. He was told that it was not enough for fire chiefs to say they supported women, and that they were behind us and ready to be there for us.

Changing mindset
Instead, Chief Critchley was challenged to take the forward position on this issue, and lead from the front. Chief Critchley spoke clearly in admitting that there was more that he could, and should, do more for women in the fire service.

Standing before an audience of more than 200 conference attendees, two white male fire chiefs admitted failing women in the fire service. A truly cathartic moment for those of us who have been trying to represent and advocate on behalf of women for what seems like a lifetime.

President Metcalf offered two more issues that relate specifically to diversity. The first was that the fire service is in the midst of a leadership crisis due to the pending retirements of some of our most experienced leaders.

The second was the issue of behavioral health and the importance of fire departments offering programs to mitigate this latest industrial “hazard” that we are experiencing. I agree with the importance of these issues, but, pardon the interruption; we have a bit more to discuss regarding these two issues.

Leadership crisis
I would propose that in tandem with the inability of the fire service to sustain and grow diversity in the industry, we have had a leadership crisis for the last 30 years, starting when women first broke the barriers of entering the fire service.

How can I back up such an assertion?

Because I still hear and receive emails of the issues women confront. For example, two women who are in high-ranking positions in metro-size fire departments have recently been exposed to unethical management practices.

These unethical acts will significantly influence the ability of these two women to reach the highest-ranking position in their department. Both are highly qualified, highly educated, highly respected women. Both are being held back by other ranking chief officer making false accusations on performance issues or just frankly keeping women down.

And these women are defenseless. Their fire chiefs will not step in and correct the issues. If the women file an EEOC claim, their careers and reputation will take a beating. This is simply another failure in leadership.

Champions needed
The issue of behavioral health for women has been around for the same 30 years that we have been exposed to failed leadership. Women who are harassed, mistreated, shunned, discriminated against, etc … have been talking about behavioral health issues (like depression) for years. Yet, no one has been paying attention or admitting the significance of these issues.

Many women have left the service due to behavioral health issues. Respectfully, women are keenly aware of the failed leadership and behavioral health issues in the fire service. We are thankful that these issues are now being addressed on a broader scale.

Yet, our recruitment and retention numbers are diminishing. Women are leaving the service, retiring, and many, many departments do not have one woman on the job.

Have we missed our opportunity for women to reach critical mass in the fire service? Is it worth it for women to continue battling the same issues over and over? Will we overcome?

A universal problem
The good news is that the failure of leadership in the fire service is consistent with the scholarly opinion on leadership in general. Leadership development programs are failing across many industries.

You do not have to be a rocket scientist to make the connection that more leadership development programs — degree and otherwise — should equate to better leadership. However, many agree this is not the case.

An interesting perspective on leadership development was recently promoted through a TED talk by Roselinde Torres, senior partner and managing director of the Boston Consulting Group.

Torres offered up the following: the reason leadership development programs are not producing 21st century leaders is because many of these programs are designed around a traditional leadership model that was effective 20 years ago.

Today’s leaders need to be prepared to deal with complexity and information flow at levels never seen before, she said. Leaders must be more global, digitally enabled and transparent.

You can watch the TED talk to fill in the gaps, but the final analysis comes down to leaders answering three questions for themselves.

Making change
First, where are you looking to anticipate change? Who are you spending your time with; what are you reading; and how are you distilling this into understanding where your organization needs to go?

Second, what is the diversity measure of your personal and professional stakeholder network? Who do you spend your time with — people like you or people different from you in any way possible so that you learn to establish trusting relationships that lead to the accomplishment of a common goal? Who are you listening to?

And last, are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past? Good leaders dare to be different.

Yes, President Metcalf and Chief Critchley, the fire service has failed. You both have shown tremendous courage in speaking to that failure and women do appreciate your support.

We will follow your lead. We will continue to be patient … for a little while longer.

Comments - Add Yours


  1. Chief Bill Metcalf

    Thanks, Chief Horvath. As President and Chairman of the Board of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, I have a very brief window of time in which to try to make a difference in the fire service. I feel that it is a professional imperative that we deal with this issue of failure to improve the diversity of the fire service and I am glad to take the opportunity to raise the issue at every opportunity. My only additional thought is, while I appreciate your willingness to be patient, I think that is NOT what we need to solve the issue. I believe we actually need more impatient people! We need members of the fire service who are not satisfied and keep pushing for real, substantive change. That change is going to happen because of leaders at all levels who see this as an important issue, who hold each other accountable, and work together to make real, meaningful change. Thanks for your continued advocacy!

    • Thank you for your support on this issue, Chief Metcalf! It can only help to have the guy who’s in possession of the “bully pulpit” afforded the IAFC President actively engaged.

  2. Well Said Chief Horvath ! – I have joined the fight for women by taking the first step and following your footsteps by joining iWomen of which you were past president, a leader. It gave me the courage to have a voice for change and join the voices of other women firefighters. I patiently wait for change in my career but more importantly I hope for change so that my daughter and other young women can have the opportunity to enjoy the fire service as a profession.
    Thank you for continuing to be a champion for women firefighters.

  3. Very nice article, Chief Horvath. Your continued efforts are greatly appreciated.
    In a comment by Chief Metcalf he states that patience “is not what we need to solve this issue.” These blaming the victim types of statements are very representative of the “us” verses “them” type of mentality which is at the core of the diversity issue. Do we need to list (again) the benefits of inclusion that have been reaped by all? Better fitting, lighter weight, better performing safety gear? More private, restful fire houses? Better recognition of mental health issues and access to service with reduced stigmatization? Etc, etc, etc… Does the public really want to go back to the “good old days” of watching “them” fistfight in the street over which fire company would arrive on scene first? Until we all start pulling the cart together as a fire service “family” this fire is not going out.

  4. We as fire service leaders must take a proactive stance towards making
    diversity a quality improvement issue for our departments and our
    communities. Far too much “untapped” human potential out there in the
    women we are not recruiting, hiring, nurturing and retaining in our
    organizations. Bravo to leaders like Chief Cheryl Horvath and others who continue to “sound the alarm”!

  5. As a female Division Chief who has struggled with a lot of the very issues discussed in many of these articles I just would like to say thank you. Too often women feel like isolated islands in their struggles with no support. I for one in the last five years feel a tremendous change in support due to social networking. I realize my struggles are the very same felt by other female firefighters contrary to what I had been led to believe over the years by some males in the fire service. I agree with what Chief Metcalf stated below, we need more impatient people who are willing to be courageous; to implement practices to make a difference in the demogrpahics of the fire service.
    Thank you for the support. Thank you for the reminder that I am not alone in my struggles. Thank you for giving me the inspiration to continue my passion for a more diverse fire service. Thank you for helping me realize I am not a lone wolf in that passion.
    Proud to call each and every one of you sisters and brothers in service!

  6. I love this article, because somehow I feel a little less confused and alone in my own nightmare. I’ve gone through the depression, and hopelessness.
    I’m a member of a small rural volunteer department, but when I joined I not only found A passion; I found MY passion. In 7 short years graduated high school, obtained my Bachelors Degree in Fire Investigation, began working full-time as a fire investigator on the private side, have more training than 90% of the membership, and involved in a multitude of professional organizations….My Chiefs at the time supported me 100% of the time…I made it to Captain, before they realized I MIGHT actually “have what it takes” to be in a higher leadership role. Then I began to be scrutinized for ANYTHING I did that they could discipline me for. Eventually I was shunned by my officers, disciplined (illegally retaliated against- removed from my firematic office as Captain for submitting a harassment complaint, against the Board of Fire Commissioner’s Secretary who continuously accused me of fooling around with her husband. Does that sound familiar??), and have not been treated the same since. I’m going on 2 years fighting this legally. I submitted the EEOC claim to NYS and nothing has been done yet. I don’t want to, I know it will ruin my reputation with the department but I promised myself I wouldn’t let this WRONG behavior take me down. I’m willing to take the risk, and the journey to prove I’m being treated unfairly. That department was my life, but in the past two years I’ve begun to move on. I’m still a member because it bothers them that I’m still on their roster, however, I’m not actively involved. I showed up to a fire the other day and my Chief didn’t even acknowledge me.
    Again, thanks for the article. It put what I was feeling into words and helped explain perhaps why this happened…

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