Gear that Fits Pushed by Women Firefighters in Los Angeles County, CA

Feb. 7, 2024
Ill-fitting turnout gear doesn't protect firefighters from burns and other dangers as it leaves gaps.

The effort to hire more women at the Los Angeles County Fire Department includes a diversity recruitment blitz by the county backed by a push from the all-woman county Board of Supervisors.

Only one thing is missing: women’s uniforms.

Women firefighters must wear men’s uniforms and turnout gear that does not fit their bodies properly, the board reported. Some female firefighters who came to the board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 6 who were wearing the standard-issue men’s uniforms said the problem is not just cosmetic, but can affect their performance.

Uniforms, as well as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as turnout coats that fit atop the uniforms, do not accommodate a women’s form in the chest, hips and waist, making it more difficult to crawl with a heavy hose into a burning building, said Battalion Chief Sara Rathbun.

Female firefighters who work along the coast can have difficulties extinguishing boat fires because they have to hike up bulky pants to allow for longer strides. “If you have to hike them (pants) up to effect a rescue, that means you can’t use your legs and arms properly, making it very difficult,” Rathbun said.

In some instances, ill-fitting uniforms and coats that protect firefighters from burns can leave gaps, allowing greater exposure to heat, flames, smoke and even carcinogens, the county reported. “PPE turnout suits are often excessively bulky in the neck, arm, leg, and crotch areas, leaving gaps in essential coverage and protection,” read the report, which estimated the risk of injury is 33% higher for women firefighters.

“This is not about a fashion show. This is about safety,” said Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger.

The county fire department employs 82 female firefighters out of 3,145. Of all firefighters in the United States, 95% are men, the county reported.

When trying to order female uniforms, manufacturers told Chief Anthony Marrone that they are only available in large numbers that far exceed the department’s need. The supervisors passed a motion by a 5-0 vote to send a letter to all the uniform companies, asking them to provide the women firefighter uniforms in smaller batches.

They will also notify CalFire and the California State Association of Counties and get a report back from Marrone on how he can buy smaller numbers of women-specific uniforms and PPE.

“I think we have some leverage,” said Fourth District Supervisor Janice Hahn, who wrote the motion. She told the women firefighters in the board room: “We have your back and we have your hips.”

Hahn said the Women’s Fire League brought this to her attention. She said female firefighters have not complained and didn’t want to make a fuss. “But when you are in a male-dominated industry you do everything you can to not act like a complainer. We all try to fit in. I’m reminded of that quote: ‘Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but in high heels and backwards’,” Hahn said.

She said recruiting and retaining female firefighters also comes down to providing flexible work schedules and facilities in fire houses, issues that can affect recruitment. Hahn has been asking for more women firefighters to be hired.

“We are seeking to make strides in diversity in the department so the lack of proper PPE and uniforms is not acceptable,” said Third District Supervisor Lindsey Horvath. “Sexism is alive and well and we need to address it.”

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