Prior to the mid-1970s, few fire departments thought much about personal facilities for their members. Firefighters slept in large open dorms, while fire officers might have their own rooms at larger departments, and there was one big locker room that included toilets and showers.
When hiring women became more prevalent in the early 1980s, fire departments had to reconsider their living arrangements. Was it appropriate for women and men to share a common dorm? What about bathroom facilities? Some departments took immediate steps to modify facilities for the changing workforce, while others are still struggling with the issue to this day.
Accommodating a diversifying workforce
In the beginning, most fire departments did the minimum to accommodate a diversifying workforce, which could be something as simple as hanging a curtain up in the dorm or installing a lock on the bathroom door. Making major modifications to facilities was expensive and with only a few women on the job, it hardly seemed worth it to many departments.
The result of this approach was that women were forced to be the ones to make accommodations in many departments for years – to go without locker space, to be the last one to use the toilet or to ask permission to take a shower.
Inequities in facilities did not serve anyone well. Many discrimination lawsuits filed against fire departments cited the lack of equal facilities as one element of unfair treatment. Eventually, the deficit in adequate facilities for all firefighters became detriment to recruitment and retention in some departments.
Consider modifications to firehouse dorms and bathrooms independently
One of the problems was that bedrooms and bathrooms were usually considered together, when in fact they are two different issues.
In the early days, it seemed like fire departments were much more concerned with men and women sleeping in the same room than they were with providing adequate toilet, washing and dressing facilities for everyone. But, for most women, sleeping in the dorm was the least of their concerns. As long as everyone understood that being in the dorm was part of the job, wore appropriate sleepwear and treated others with consideration, being in the dorm as a woman was not a big deal. In fact, as a young firefighter, I found much to be gained from the camaraderie of dorm life and being able to immediately talk with others when the alarm went off.
Not having access to toilet, dressing and shower facilities was a much bigger problem, and one that many fire departments did not address in a timely way. For example, many women went for years, or even entire careers, without having access to a shower at work. With what is now known about hazardous exposures on many different types of calls, this created a dangerous situation from a health and safety standpoint.
Finding the balance between health, privacy and camaraderie in the firehouse
As fire departments began to consider how to modify or create facilities to best serve everyone on the department, they realized the factors that must be considered go beyond basic consideration of gender separation.
For example, according to Battalion Chief Pedro Cáceres with the Wayne Township (Ind.) Fire Department, one of the principal issues when designing sleeping space in their fire stations was health concerns for all firefighters. Chief Cáceres, a former full-time architect, pointed out that common dorms can diminish the quality of rest and sleep for everyone due to snoring or other disturbances, as well as create an environment where colds and other illnesses can easily spread among members.
Some complain that individual sleeping spaces diminish team spirit and contribute to division among crews as members all go into their separate spaces during down time in the station. This is a legitimate concern, but it can be dealt with in other ways than just perpetuating common dorms.
The same complaint has been made when open locker rooms are modified. When researching station design, Cáceres found that male firefighters reported a routine that included making plans for the day – meals, workout times, special events – in the locker room at shift change. When asked about the ability of female crew members to weigh in on the day’s activities, the reply was simply, “We just tell them the plan when we get out.” Obviously, this behavior was not inclusive and could even be discriminatory.
It is not difficult to change these routines and habits, but it does require leadership at the company and station officer levels. Rather than making daily plans in the locker room, move that conversation to the kitchen table. Rather than just allowing people to scatter during their free time – and setting the example by hiding out yourself – create activities and opportunities that draw people together. These might include working on special projects, encouraging group study sessions, playing games or sharing food together.
There is nothing wrong with having some privacy at the fire station. Most people appreciate having some time alone away from the group, whether it is to make a private phone call, read a book, take a shower or sleep undisturbed. Building privacy into bedroom and bathroom spaces does not have to ruin camaraderie within fire crews; it can even enhance it, as some level of privacy can diminish conflicts among those who share close quarters.
But, as in most things, balance is the key. If fire crews use individual facilities as an excuse to disengage from their crews, that can be a real problem. To prevent this from happening, the solution, as always, is leadership, not just from the top down, but from all crew members who make the commitment to be the best individuals and team they can be, every single day they are on the job.