In September 1988, three trailblazing women - Michelle Field, Jacqui Segger and Virginia Forbes (née Bell) - graduated alongside twenty men from the Victoria Street Training College. They were the first women to become MFB firefighters.
A combination of the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act of 1979 and a Labor government keen on tackling workplace discrimination proved to be the catalyst for changing attitudes to women in the workforce. It was a time of change internationally as women around the world began joining the fire and rescue service.
The successful integration of women into MFB’s communications team encouraged MFB Board members to embrace change and welcome women into the ranks after 97 years.
But there were still some who were resistant to this change and old fashioned and sexist commentary wasn’t unusual. ‘Women can’t be firefighters because they wear skirts’ and ‘they might get pregnant’ or ‘how will they reach the ladder?’, were just some of the comments made around that time. There was concern expressed from wives and partners of male firefighters about women occupying the same physical space and sleeping quarters as their partners while on shift.
In defiance of these out-dated and irrational attitudes, and with the enthusiastic support of the United Firefighters Union, in 1987, the all-male MFB Board began an active campaign to recruit more women as firefighters. The tide of history was turning.
JOINING THE RANKS
Firefighters are highly respected members of our community and the process of qualifying is extremely competitive, attracting thousands of applicants. Only a small fraction is successful. MFB recruits using a merit-based system that ensures only candidates with the highest scores will be successful. Despite popular misconceptions, the selection requirements are identical for women and men.
Leading Firefighter Kat Dunell recalls her journey to becoming a firefighter. ‘I had a fairly relaxed attitude the first time round. I didn’t pass the aptitude test; the math component was harder than I’d expected and I hadn’t studied.’ It took two more attempts along with hours of studying and training before she passed all of the components. When she did get in on that third attempt, there were 3500 applicants for 35 recruit positions.
MFB women’s experiences of recruit training vary. Some find being a minority in a male-dominated culture challenging, while others thrive in the demanding hothouse of the training environment. As Leading Firefighter Kylie Evans says, ‘sometimes it’s empowering to constantly be proving yourself. But other times it can be exhausting!’
Many current and former female firefighters speak highly of the support they received from their instructors and other firefighters which helped them get through recruit training. Station Officer Janine Young points out that this is reflective of life at MFB: ‘there are no single players, everything that is achieved, is achieved together’.
PRIVACY AND DIGNITY FOR ALL
When female firefighters began to take up their places at fire stations around Melbourne, they moved into spaces that were previously all-male workplaces. The presence of operational women brought about positive changes for all, driven by gender inclusion.
Melbourne’s fire stations needed a complete overhaul to become safe and comfortable places that women and men could cohabit. Increased attention was paid to ensuring individual privacy and comfort for everyone. Even the most basic of facilities – toilets – had to be redesigned, as rows of urinals no longer fit the bill.
In a job with long hours and overnight shifts, women and men found themselves sleeping in close proximity with only one dedicated sleeping area. As one female firefighter recalls: ‘I didn’t want to listen to men snoring all night’; and she suspects that her male colleagues were equally uncomfortable with the situation. Fire stations now provide greater levels of privacy for all firefighters. These physical changes were welcomed by women, men and their families, and some men started to feel more comfortable bringing their wives and children to the revamped stations.
While efforts were made by many to accommodate the new firefighters, not everyone was welcoming. Several early female firefighters were confronted by some hostility from colleagues about women being in ‘their space’. Senior Station Officer Anita Carlin encountered this behaviour when she became a firefighter. ‘Some worried about what they would have to give up, rather than looking at what they would gain.’