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Mayor to file legislation establishing Boston Fire Department cadet program

The effort underscores the need to curb a national trend of underrepresentation of women in fire suppression services.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh today announced he will seek to establish a Cadet Program for the Boston Fire Department (BFD) to recruit and train more women to serve as active firefighters with the Department. Mayor Walsh will formally file his proposal with the Massachusetts Legislature in the coming weeks as part of his overall legislative package.

The effort underscores the need to curb a national trend of underrepresentation of women in fire suppression services, demonstrated by the fact that only approximately four percent of firefighters nationally are women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Among the top cities nationally, for fire departments which do not have a dual role of being a fire-based EMS operation, such as Boston, the percent of female firefighters hovers at one percent. The City of Boston currently has 16 female firefighters, of a firefighting force of approximately 1,500.

BFD's newest recruit class of 54 individuals were sworn in last week, marking the most diverse class since 2003. Of the class of 54 new firefighters, more than one-third, or 20 new firefighters, are people of color, including seven Asian individuals (more than doubling the number of Asian-American firefighters at BFD), seven Hispanic and six black individuals. At the same time, the class consisted of 53 males and one female (BFD's first Asian American female), reinforcing the need to further recruit women to serve as active firefighters in the Department. Two times over the last five years, the Department has sought state approval for a "selective certification list" to include a targeted number of female firefighters in new recruit classes; both of these requests were denied.  

Following allegations of discrimination, Mayor Walsh commissioned the law firm Stoneman, Chandler, and Miller to conduct an external review examining the culture and environment for female firefighters at BFD. The newly-released 147 page report indicates the need for the Department to hire more women, addresses the significant changes that have been made to address a longstanding male-dominated culture of the Department, noting "considerable progress has been made in how women are treated currently in the Department," while offering recommendations for how to further address issues of diversity and inclusion for women in the Department. Mayor Walsh has committed to adopting all recommendations of the report to bolster female recruitment efforts and improve workplace conditions for women.

"It's incredibly important that our workplaces in the City of Boston are inclusive and diverse, and are safe and welcoming to all," said Mayor Walsh. "I thank Attorney Kay Hodge and her team for their diligence in conducting this review that will serve as an opportunity for us to double down on our efforts to recruit those who we have not reached before, make changes where they are needed, and provide every opportunity we can to involve women and men in good, lifelong careers with the Boston Fire Department."

"There is nothing more important to me than the health, safety and well-being of Boston's firefighters, which is why I'm proud of all the work we've been able to accomplish over the last several years," said Commissioner Joseph Finn. "This report makes clear that we have more work to do, and now more than ever I am committed to driving this needed change of embracing a culture of inclusion that will reach every corner of every firehouse."

The report states, "the lack of a critical mass of female firefighters results in a male dominated department," and "several [women] noted that they did not always feel as welcomed when detailed to houses that did not have a woman regularly assigned." The City of Boston's first female firefighter joined the Department in 1984, alongside Commissioner Finn of the Boston Fire Department. While nationwide trends indicate low numbers of women in the fire suppression services, Mayor Walsh and Commissioner Finn have prioritized diversifying the Department, recruiting more women and offering workplaces that are fitted to accommodate both genders.

Under Mayor Walsh and Commissioner Finn, many operational changes have been made in the Department's firehouses over the last several years to improve workplace conditions for female firefighters, including strengthening policies around the designation of women-only bathrooms in those firehouses with permanently assigned female firefighters; installing exterior combination locks on the outside door of women's bathrooms; creating permanent seven foot walls between bunks, each with their own sliding door with an internal lock, to afford greater privacy in sleeping quarters, a huge improvement in living/workplace conditions not previously required through the Hansford decree; conducting extensive training for all district, deputy chiefs and captains regarding issues of respectful workplaces; and conducting ongoing meetings with female firefighters to hear concerns and address issues.

Additionally, the Boston Fire Department has twice applied to the state for a Selective Certification List to include a targeted number of female firefighters in new recruit classes; both of these requests were denied, most recently as October 2018.

According to the report, "most of the women stated that they loved their jobs and none expressed regret about deciding to become a firefighter." Cognizant that civil service rules statutorily dictates the Department's hiring process by law, the Department proactively hired a diversity recruitment officer in an effort to expand recruitment and outreach to female candidates to become firefighters.

"As the female liaison for the Boston Fire Department, it is my responsibility to make sure that the voices of our female population are heard and represented, and that they feel supported at work," said Firefighter Margaret Connolly, the Department's female liaison, and a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. "We've already made improvements within the past 6 months to several issues of concern to our female firefighters, such as updating the bathroom policy and addressing uniform issues. We have increased our recruitment and outreach efforts to female candidates, and will continue to do so. I am excited for this intentional focus on bringing more women to the force."

Mayor Walsh and Commissioner Finn are committed to improving the workplace to ensure a culture of inclusion for all firefighters.

As such, Mayor Walsh is committed to implementing all recommendations of the report to supplement the work underway. Key points include:

  • Develop a strategy for changing the culture and implementing a welcoming and respectful work environment in all firehouses which will gain the trust of women and men in the Department, and developing a reporting and evaluation system to ensure compliance;
  • Seek passage of special legislation for a Fire Department Cadet Program;
  • Formally implement support systems already ongoing on a department-wide basis to provide support and guidance for firefighters interested in becoming officers, with a particular focus on encouraging women and minority firefighters;
  • Review and revise the City and Boston Fire Department policies and procedures are consistent with the commitment of the Mayor and Commissioner to achieve a safe, welcoming, diverse and inclusive workplace;
  • Continue to implement the Department's comprehensive training for officers to include firefighters on all protected categories, discrimination, anti-harassment, respectful workplace, implicit bias, and non-retaliation;
  • Provide additional support, services, mentors and programs to support female firefighters

In addition to prioritizing workplace satisfaction, as one of the oldest fire departments in the nation, Boston has become a national leader on issues regarding firefighter safety. Last year, Metro Fire Chiefs Association named Commissioner Finn National Fire Chief of the Year. Commissioner Finn was selected for his leadership in working to improve the health, wellness, safety and protective gear for firefighters. In addition to establishing a Safety, Health & Wellness Division with the Boston Fire Department, Commissioner Finn has also implemented safety measures including new 45 minute air tanks, wearing of hoods at fire scenes, putting bunker gear washing machine extractors in firehouses and monitoring of air quality in fire buildings.

Since taking office in 2014, Mayor Walsh has prioritized outfitting the Boston Fire Department for the 21st century and has committed $100 million to the department for infrastructure improvements. The Boston Fire Department will soon rebuild two fire stations, and has received 40 new fire trucks, replacing 50 percent of its entire fleet in the past four years alone. In addition to infrastructure investments, BFD leadership have undergone extensive workplace training every year, including 30,000 hours total in training which includes anti-harassment, discrimination and respectful workplace training in the last year alone, an over 300% increase in training hours compared to four years ago.

Read the full report

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