‘Who wants to be on the fireground feeling like a sack of spuds?’

This article first appeared in the April issue of Emergency Services Times.

Words: Jan Morris, Area Manager, Shropshire Fire and Rescue Service

When I joined the fire and rescue service in 1998, there was no uniform and no personal protective equipment (PPE) designed for women. I had to make do with kit that was designed for men. Fast forward 25 years, women firefighters have a uniform and PPE that is better but there’s still a long way to go to make it fit for purpose at all stages of our lives.  

Around 8 per cent of firefighters are women. Some of them, like me, are going through the menopause and I want to make sure that the women who serve long after I retire can have a better experience because we need to be inclusive in how we look after women in the fire and rescue service.  

Women who joined decades ago were able to retire at around 50-55 years old as they would have been on the 1992 firefighters pension scheme. As a result, the vast majority either avoided the impact of menopause or were in the peri-menopause stage. Times have now changed.  All firefighters and operational officers must work until they are 60 to achieve a full pension and as a sector, we must be prepared to support an ageing workforce, an increasing number of whom will be women.

Menopause affects women in different ways

The menopause affects women differently. I’m by no means suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach, but there are some aspects that will impact most women. For example, hot flushes vary in their intensity and duration; either way they are unpleasant at best.  We know there are many triggers, and tight and/or heavy clothing can be a causal factor. 

Structural fire kit is not flexible and can feel tight depending on body movement.  Structural integrity cannot be compromised, it must protect us from fire, but the next generation of fire kit must continue to focus on weight and flexibility.  It may be that symptomatic women will need larger kit and if so, this should be of a quality where safety is not compromised by a looser fit.  We might need to provide additional kit for those facing hot sweats. 

Comfort in the workplace

Whether working on the incident ground, training or in an office environment, comfort is paramount.  Something I’ve experienced is hypersensitivity and clothing with no give in it causes me great discomfort. I am often extremely uncomfortable at work and feeling hot and bothered because of it.

I want to have the option to choose elements of my uniform that can stretch as I prefer to wear clothing with elastane and have no pressure against my skin. I need to feel things move when I move.  Right now, my work uniform does not provide this.

Another common symptom which has an impact on operational women is bloating and weight gain. It can result in an increase in waistline which is almost impossible to stop.  We need clothing that is designed to fit the changing body shape of an ageing woman.

Feeling confident

The final symptoms I want to cover are anxiety, depression and low mood all of which have a huge impact on confidence.  Clothing that does not fit causes angst at the best of times.  If my body is naturally changing shape then I don’t need to be made to feel worse by trying to squeeze into clothing that is not designed to fit me, hurts my skin and makes me hot and bothered. 

This has a huge impact on women’s mental wellbeing and self-confidence, which could then affect performance at work.  Who really wants to be on the fireground, leading a presentation, or sitting in an interview, feeling like a sack of spuds?    

Thoughtful approaches to design

I can go into many high street shops and buy clothing designed for taller women, but workwear suppliers have still not got it right, with most just focusing on leg length.  This means that trousers and shirts don’t properly fit a taller woman.  All this simply has the impact of making us feel like we are the problem when we are most definitely not.

Reasonable adjustments can be applied where necessary, but fire and rescue service leaders must consider the impact on individuals: no woman wants to be identified as ‘the one who is menopausal.’ 

It would be helpful for example if officers could all wear smart clothing in the office rather than uniform: make it a choice for all regardless of gender.  Likewise, stretchy clothes under fire kit, especially for training purposes, might be an option for all – assisting anyone who may be suffering from joint problems.  We just need to think a little differently. 

Future Firefighter Concept project

I have taken on the role of Women in the Fire Service (WFS) representative on the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) PPE and Clothing Committee where I’m hoping to influence the future of PPE and workwear through the Future Firefighter Concept project. 

This research-based project will look at fire service uniform and PPE to ensure it is fit for purpose for the future.  The research is being undertaken by Defence Science Technology Laboratories (DSTL) in association with the NFCC and will look at a variety of challenges, issues and opportunities that face all fire services across the UK.  There are two over-arching principles to the research: firefighter safety, and inclusivity to promote and represent UK fire services as diverse inclusive employers.

I urge current and future leaders in fire and rescue services to think more widely about the clothing and PPE they ask all women in fire and rescue services to wear and not accept the status quo. I ask suppliers of workwear and PPE to be more creative to meet the needs of the women firefighters now and in the future.  Your ideas and innovations will support inclusivity and help to bring about a much-needed change in the sector. We must get to a place where women feel welcomed and valued throughout their career, and not feel they must fit in to be accepted.