Including Women in the Fire Service

A Strategy Toolkit for Fire Departments

Section 6


Treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently. —Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw



Employee Promotion
Employee promotion is when an employee moves to a higher position within an organization. Typically, a promotion involves an increase in responsibilities, status, salary, rank, and benefits. It is these aspects of the job that drive employees to strive higher and work towards new goals.

In theory, an employee who has received a promotion will be required to put in more effort and work more. Depending on your fire service’s policies, promotion decisions are determined by different considerations. Some may include length of service, experience, performance, or seniority. In all likelihood, a collective agreement will determine the compensation strategy.

Types of Employee Promotions
There are a handful of different employee promotion types that may be applicable for your fire service. These include:

Horizontal Promotion: An employee is rewarded with an increase in pay but perhaps little change in the way of job responsibilities. This type of promotion may also be referred to as an up-gradation of an employee (e.g., years of service).

Vertical Promotion: An employee who is awarded a vertical promotion has exemplified a change in skills and experience – it is an upward movement. With this, an employee can expect to see a change in salary, responsibilities, status and possibly benefits (e.g., Deputy Platoon Chief to Platoon Chief).

Dry Promotion: Perhaps not as readily utilized in your fire service, however a dry promotion is one where an employee receives more responsibilities without financial benefits.

Open and Closed Promotion: An open promotion is comparable to a promotion every employee would expect to receive in an organization upon eligibility (e.g., number of years of service or completing probationary service). A closed promotion is a promotion only available to eligible employees (e.g., increase in rank – Deputy Fire Chief to Fire Chief within the same fire service).


With low overall numbers of women entering the fire service, fewer advancement possibilities for women exist within the ranks of the fire service.

Many professional firefighters in Ontario are members of union associations with their work governed by collective bargaining agreements. Promotional processes for association members are typically detailed within these collective agreements. Associations, as the established voice of their members, have traditionally advocated for transparency and fairness in promotional processes. Collective agreement language has sought to level the promotional playing field by relying heavily on seniority-based systems. For a number of fire services, a member’s tenure within the service can hold more weight than merit, education, training and work experience outside of the fire service. As the number of women in the fire service has been slow to gain momentum, relying heavily on seniority for advancement inhibits women’s ability to promote. Addressing this situation through collective bargaining requires significant collaborative effort on the part of associations and management that is beyond the scope of this toolkit. But for the benefit of all firefighters, we must consider whether time served in the department is truly the best indicator of success in leadership.

Representation of Women Officers and Societal Conditioning
With few women officers in the fire service, public perception has been an obstacle for women. Few citizens expect a woman to be a part of an emergency crew, much less the officer in charge. Most people have deep-rooted societal conditioning about who they expect to take charge at an emergency. Women officers are often treated with disrespect and have their authority challenged by the public.

Stereotypes and Prejudices Lower Morale and Self-Worth
As a woman, having your authority challenged because of stereotypes or prejudices can be demoralizing. Women can experience a disconnect between what is expected of them as a fire officer, and what is expected of them as a woman. For example, fire officers are praised for having a strong command presence and giving orders in a direct and forceful way - “ladies” aren’t. These gender-based stereotypes of authority can create challenges for women who want to pursue a career in leadership. Women can internalize these attitudes, feeling like imposters in their field, creating a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud." This self-doubt can prevent them from pursuing promotional opportunities.

Limited Opportunity for Pre-Promotional Officer Development
Leadership development requires significant time and formal resources and is often overlooked. Many fire departments have little or no guidelines on pre-promotional officer development. The assumption exists that training and additional skills development will be acquired through “acting up” into a position. Relying informally on fellow officers to teach the “ins and outs” of the department may be inadequate for women leaders in training. Regrettably, many women lack access to the informal networks that many men enjoy; women are less likely to be included in hunting or fishing trips, golf outings or socializing after union meetings. Participating in these settings (where rank is often put aside in favour of camaraderie) can provide tremendous insight into coworkers and offer tacit knowledge of an organization. Not having access to these informal avenues of learning can be detrimental, for women and other members of underrepresented groups. Until there are enough women to create networks that are more open to women, women may rely on alternate and possibly less effective ways to network.

Much has been written on the important role mentorship plays in helping women succeed in male-dominated sectors. The Insights Study, recommend that departments implement mentorship programs to support the retention and promotion of women in the fire service. According to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs’ Report A Fire Service for All:

Succession and Mentorship is crucial to the development of all future leaders, and even more so for women. Mentoring helps women ideate about what they will become. For women to be more empowered in the workplace, it is crucial to have structured mentorship programs where women can learn from others and clear succession planning for fire leadership that demonstrates an understanding of diversity and inclusion.

In order to build a strong and diverse leadership pool, mentorship programs must be integrated into fire department succession planning. They are also essential to the creation of a robust and healthy workforce within the rank and file, particularly when women often feel othered by firefighter culture. Cultivating the model of “acting up” to build more formal mentorship opportunities will improve inclusion outcomes for women within the ranks and those who move into supervisory and management positions.

Lack of Management and Leadership Accountability
Managers are not often held accountable for advancing and developing women as leaders. Many departments do not have processes to evaluate officers or even attend to their continued development after promotion. While many firefighters in the Insights Study were positive regarding their officers’ skills in managing complex emergency situations and creating a safe working environment, they were less positive about leadership having the skills to manage issues of interpersonal conflict, discrimination, and harassment (Insights study page 60):

Lack of Training in Interpersonal Skills
Call characteristics for fire departments have changed over the years, requiring firefighters to interact with the public more (e.g., increase in medical calls requiring one-on-one interaction). As such, the need for interpersonal skills (e.g., emotional intelligence, leadership, communication, and conflict strategies) is necessary.

Leaders, especially first-level officers, must be given the opportunity to continuously improve their communication and leadership skills of emotional intelligence, self-awareness, effective communication, assertiveness, active listener, and conflict resolution strategies. This type of training can be accomplished through mentorship, workshops, formal training, and education. All firefighters should be provided with the same opportunities for growth: informal on the job coaching, mentorship, and talent development. Mentorship is crucial for anyone moving into a new position, especially management.

Sustained effort to instill a change in culture within the fire service begins with not only promoting the right people to leadership positions but also continuously investing in leadership development and training.

Finally, and most importantly, a key component to supporting the promotional success of women is to renew senior staff commitment to providing a supportive, harassment-free working environment for everyone.

Women firefighters also see a need for additional training programs in anti-discrimination and anti-harassment. With respect to discrimination and human rights training, the Insights Study found a disconnect between the perception of its effectiveness between women and men in suppression, and between front line suppression and senior leadership. It is significant that overall, all groups surveyed had a low assessment of the effectiveness of this type of training:

Further investigation into what is causing these disconnects as well as more research and development of fire-specific training in these topics is needed.

2Best Practices

  • Begin leadership training as a component of firefighter skills development rather than relying on ‘acting up’ on the job.
  • All officers should receive leadership development training in team-building with their crews.
  • All department members will benefit from training in communications, conflict resolution and harassment.
    • Revise anti-harassment training. Ensure part of this education program addresses issues of gender inequality as well as racism, homophobia and transphobia.
    • Make harassment training more relevant to firefighting and done by firefighters in sessions that include leadership.
    • Address why certain behaviors and actions are harmful to individuals and the entire fire service
  • Provide opportunities to network with women outside your fire department.
  • Invest in your employees through strong mentoring programs that don’t end at hiring or begin at promotion.
    • Mentoring programs have a proven track record of improving diversity in many corporate environments.
  • Ensure standards and criteria for mentors are established.
    • Mentors must maintain confidentiality, exhibit trustworthy behavior, be effective communicators and listeners, and provide constructive feedback.
    • Mentoring can be informal or formal, and your fire department may wish to enroll mentors in accredited mentor training programs.
  • Establish onboarding programs to integrate new recruits into the workplace fire culture by providing the tools and information to become a productive member of the crew and department.
    • Provide new recruits with information on their rights and responsibilities to the service and their community as well as information on harassment
  • ·Establish an ongoing framework for reassessing promotional processes.
    • Evolve assessment framework to predict leadership potential and future job performance
    • Make promotional processes transparent and measurable (e.g knowledge, skills, abilities) that are standardized, objective, quantifiable, vetted, and will adhere to professional and legal standards.
    • It is highly advisable that fire departments develop personnel assessment tools collaboratively with its human resources and legal divisions to ensure compliance with labour laws.
  • Require mandatory certification and higher-level educational qualifications for all senior leadership.
    • Clearly define succession planning and leadership programs and courses.
  • Increase support for Fire Service Women Ontario and other equity-focused organizations in the fire service.
  • Support research that helps to measure, understand, and address why women and members from other underrepresented groups fail to reach their potential or leave the fire service.
  • Identify barriers that prevent women’s advancement in the fire service.
    • Are women overlooked as mentees?
    • Are women in your fire service promoted but not supported in these new positions?
    • Do promoted women become targets of unfair criticism and prejudice?


Step 1. Size-Up with SWOT Analysis

As discussed in Section 1: Introduction to Change, your fire service should take the time to evaluate its policies on promotion in consideration of your Diversity and Inclusion Goals and Targets.

Undertake a SWOT Analysis to identify your organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats relevant to existing policies. When considering external factors compare your policies and resources against those of the larger corporation (i.e., municipality).

When undertaking the SWOT Analysis consider what is happening today, what is planned, and what needs to occur to ensure change is possible. With respect to strengths, be specific listing existing policies, procedures, committees, task forces, anything that can help support the SWOT Analysis. Similarly, with respect to opportunities be sure to list desired improvements while including barriers that stand in the way. Use the analysis to create recruitment campaigns that showcase how the fire service is a place of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. It is important that the messaging is genuine.

Helpful to achieving objectivesHarmful to achieving objectives
Internal DriversDiversity & Inclusion Policy recently updatedPolicies outdated
Solid candidate pool for promotionsLack of potential candidate pool
Leadership supportOutdated mentorship program
Training budget approvedOnly tactical training available
Mentorship program buy-in
External DriversCorporate endorsement for updating training programsNo corporate budget or endorsement for updating training and mentorship campaigns
Ability to leverage corporate training and mentorship programsLack of traction with recruitment campaigns to increase candidate pool
Assistance with recruitment campaigns to increase candidate poolPerception due to past hiring/promotion practices

Step 2: Build a Plan with objectives

Based on the themes from the SWOT Analysis, begin to build your promotion plan while aligned with your organization’s vision, mission and values in consideration of existing diversion and inclusion policies. To begin, identify your organization’s objectives using the smart goal method.

Smart Goals
Using the SMART method, detail your fire service goals related to the promotion themes identified during the SWOT analysis.

Example 1:
WHO – Bravo Fire Service
WHAT – Review existing mentorship program
WHERE / WHEN – Fire Hall #2 – December 31, 2021
STANDARD (MEASURABLE) – Identify the current mentorship program, ensuring it is aligned with attracting women and other underrepresented groups for promotions, and recommend revisions before the end of 2021. Objective 1: The Bravo Fire Service Hall #2 will review its existing mentorship program, providing any recommended changes to ensure it aligns with its diversity and inclusion policies, including the plan to promote more women and other members of underrepresented groups within the Bravo Fire Service by December 2021.

Example 2:
WHO – Echo Fire Service
WHAT – Review training catalogue
WHERE / WHEN – Echo Fire Hall# 3 – June 30, 2021
STANDARD (MEASURABLE) – Echo Fire Hall #3 will review and create a detailed list of existing training programs by March 2022.
Objective 2: The Echo Fire Hall #3 will review all its existing training modules and programs. The review will include a detailed list of training modules/programs as well as identify and develop any training modules/programs necessary to create an inclusive Fire Hall, including an avenue to promote women and other underrepresented group members within Fire Hall #3 by March 2022.

Step 3: Implementing Your Plan

Based on your organization’s promotion goals begin to build your implementation plan. Recall this will include an outline of the program, budget details, responsibilities, and timing.

Using Objective 2 from above, here is an example implementation plan:


1. Review Training Catalogue


Create a comprehensive list of training modules/programs

Budget / Resources:

People, time. (approx. cost)

Procedures / Actions:

Review list of existing training programs/modules

  • Categorize training programs/modules
    • Leadership
    • Interpersonal
    • Conflict Resolution
    • Tactical
    • Emotional Intelligence
    • Communication
  • Identify programs/modules aligned with diversity and inclusion policies, and promotion objectives


Training Development Officer: Review (and categorize) and list training programs/modules.

Leadership / Fire Chief: Confirm training programs/modules based on review.


2 – 4 weeks

2. Identify Required Training Programs/Modules


Identify and recommend a list of training programs/modules aligned with diversity and inclusion policies and promotion objectives

Budget / Resources:

People, time. (approx. cost)

Procedures / Actions:

Research training programs/modules

Identify training programs/modules aligned with fire service policies

Recommend detailed list of training programs/modules aligned with fire service policies and promotion objectives


Training Development Officer: Recommend training programs/modules.

Leadership / Fire Chief: Approve recommended list of training programs/modules.

Fire Chief: Approve budget and timeframe for development.


2 - 3 months

3. Create Training Programs/Modules


Develop Training Programs/Modules aligned with fire service diversity and inclusion policies and promotion objectives

Budget / Resources:

People, time. (approx. cost)

Procedures / Actions:

For each training program/module complete the following elements:

  • Training Description
  • Training Context
  • Training Objectives
  • Learning Outcomes
  • Self Assessments
  • Training Content

Training design should be complete in consideration of:

  • Training method (e.g., conditions of practice during training)
  • Instructional delivery (e.g., on-the-job training methods)
  • Transfer of learning (e.g., near / far / horizontal / vertical)
  • Evaluation

Identify if the training can be developed in-house, or provide a list of available vendors


Leadership: Review & approve training programs/modules.

Leadership / Fire Chief: Identify who is to receive training.

Training Development Officer: Deliver training and/or identify vendor.


6-9 months

Step 4: Evaluating Plan Performance

Your organization has identified different promotion strategies and created an implementation plan, now it is time to assess its performance. Continuing with the previous example (Objective 2), the implementation performance can be assessed using a simplified scorecard. Recall, when applying the scorecard, you are assessing your fire service against a baseline established before implementing your plan.

Performance Measurement

ObjectivesTraffic LightOutcomes
1. Create a comprehensive list of training programs/modulesComprehensive list of training programs/modules identified and forwarded to leadership team.
2. Identify list of training programs/modules missing (still to be developed) in line with diversity and inclusion policies and promotion objectivesIncomplete. List has started, but stalled.
3. Create training programs/modules based on objective 2 (above).List of identified / required training programs/modules incomplete, therefore development of training modules not started.
Core ValuesTraffic Light123Comments
PeopleXProgram not aligned with core values as existing training programs do not align with diversity and inclusion policies.
CultureXExisting training programs do not consider the overall inclusion programs.
DiversityXThe existing training programs do not create an environment of inclusion of women and other underrepresented group members.

1 - Exceeds Expectations
2 - Meets Expectations
3 - Fails Expectations

Overall: 3
Overall, a considerable amount of work needs to be accomplished in training and development to ensure women and other members of underrepresented groups qualify (or feel comfortable) for a promotion. Much of the programs are outdated and tactical based only.

Step 5: Continuous Improvement

Thus far, we have walked through creating promotion strategies objectives and goals while building an implementation plan based on said goals. This plan should be aligned with your fire service’s diversity and inclusion policies. Next, we conducted a performance assessment against the implementation plan and based on the assessment we can create an improvement strategy.

Following through with promotion objective 2 and its implementation plan, create a performance plan adjustment.

1. Identify list of training programs/modules missing (still to be developed) in line with diversity and inclusion policies and promotion objectivesComplete list of training programs/modules, making a priority to ensure women and members of underrepresented groups have fair opportunity to promotions
2. Create training programs/modules based on objective 2 (above)Upon completion of the list of training programs/modules, either develop training modules following best practice OR investigate vendors who can supply training programs/modules


  • Ted Talk: How to Design Gender Bias out of Your Workplace Sara Sanford (2018)

    This talk offers strategies to help companies go beyond good intentions, using a data-driven standard to actively counter unconscious bias and foster gender equity -- by changing how workplaces operate, not just how people think.

  • Training, Promotions and Advancement Ontario Human Rights Commission (2008)

    This link describes why every employee should be treated equally for internal and external training opportunities in the organization and stresses all decisions made related to training opportunities should be made using a non-discriminatory process.

  • Examination of the Promotional Process within the Fire Service Carr (2017)

    This paper asks if the current promotional means that fire departments use are effective. The recommendations include the creation of mandatory officer development and an increase in educational and training requirements.

  • Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs-Executive Chief Officer Aspire Program Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs

    This program helps to create a pathway for professionals and serves as a succession-planning tool for departments.

  • Making Mentoring Work Catalyst (2010)

    This product is designed to help you think critically about your formal mentoring program. Catalyst provides data and information, assessment checklists for you to rate your efforts, and strategies to help you augment your efforts in the form of real-life Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) practices and concrete strategic tools and samples. These will help you best assess what steps and measures will be most useful for your organization.

  • How Reverse Mentoring Can Lead to More Equitable Workplaces Stanford Social Innovation Review, Sharlene Gandhi (2019)

    In this article the author discusses how we need to reimagine the traditional mentor and mentee relationship to shift power to younger and less experienced colleagues who possess unique insight into bias and racial dynamics.

  • Mentorship as a Tool for Growth, Inclusion, and Equity Idealist, Yejin Lee (2020)

    The author of this article examines how some models of mentorship can lead to inequitable practices. She describes how organizations can set up inclusive and equitable mentorship programs or practices that lead to growth.

  • Improve Workplace Culture with a Strong Mentoring Program Forbes, Naz Beheshti (2019)

    This article discusses how mentoring programs can be a win for all. Focus is placed on how mentorship creates positive effects on diversity, types of mentoring programs, and keys to a successful mentoring program.

  • How mentoring can foster officer development FireRescue1, Victoria Mikulan (2019)

    In this article, two officers offer their insights into the benefits of mentorship.

  • Mentoring: A Formula for Success in the Fire Service California Firefighter Joint Apprenticeship Committee (2020)

    This link describes the benefits of mentoring programs and how to custom build a program for your department.

  • Conflict in the Fire Service: Avoid or Address? FireRescue1, Robert Rielage (2018)

    This article speaks to how officer leadership courses should include sections on conflict management and resolution for when situations inevitably arise.

  • Real World Training and Consulting Newsletter Linda Willing (2020)

    This monthly newsletter links current events and issues to the daily challenges faced by fire and emergency services managers. Current topics in the areas of leadership development, workplace diversity, change management, and conflict resolution are discussed.

  • Gender Bias and its Impact on Women’s Advancement in the Fire Service Giard (2003)

    This research project identifies the barriers impeding women’s advancement in the fire service and makes recommendations that fire departments may employ to increase women’s presence as chief executive officers.

  • Many Faces, One Purpose: A Manager’s Handbook on Women in Firefighting FEMA (1999)

    This U.S.-based resource was developed to help the fire service leader manage the changing fire service workforce as it becomes progressively more inclusive of larger numbers of women in all ranks.