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Boston Fire Department Create Workshop For Female Firefighters

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Women make up a small percentage of career firefighters in the U.S., and they face unique challenges. Fred Thys reports that in Boston, the fire department is trying to address that.

FRED THYS, BYLINE: The Boston Fire Department recently put together an unusual workshop for female firefighters.

(CROSSTALK)

THYS: Paula Bruins, a 26-year veteran firefighter, says the women share common challenges.

PAULA BRUINS: The challenges that I'd say that female firefighters have is pretty much our physical fitness and getting along with, you know, our male counterparts and working together as a team.

THYS: Some women still face prejudice.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Against female in...

THYS: One firefighter tells a class that a guy in her fire station thinks the only place in the fire department for a woman is as a secretary. Normally, women attend fire department courses along with men, but fire commissioner Jack Dempsey realized that some differences need to be addressed.

JACK DEMPSEY: We've done this course for the men, and the women certainly were invited. But the physical exercises - that's probably the biggest difference. So this was geared specifically for women's bodies.

THYS: Women have a lower center of gravity than men. Boston firefighter Diana McDevitt points out other challenges.

DIANA MCDEVITT: I would say being a smaller stature, learning how to use my whole body to do movements rather than just upper-body strength.

THYS: The firefighters learned that they may be more flexible on one side - important to know when reaching for something at a fire.

Adam La Reau, a founder of O2X Human Performance, the training company the Boston Fire Department hired to run this workshop, says despite physical differences, female firefighters have to accomplish the same tasks as male colleagues.

ADAM LA REAU: They have to be able to drag and get low, get high, throw ladders up overhead. So you can see it's a very physically demanding job, but a lot of people don't recognize the mental demands.

THYS: To address those mental demands, Ashley Ripke, a cognitive performance specialist who works with Army Special Forces, teaches the women to trust themselves.

ASHLEY RIPKE: Changing their self-talk to recognize those beliefs that hold them back in performing.

THYS: What are some of those beliefs?

RIPKE: For instance, having to prove themselves - and if they're not strong enough, you know, and the men are stronger, or at least appear to be more physically fit.

THYS: Ripke says in some situations, women have a physical advantage over men. A smaller person might be able to get through a small window or a crawlspace to save a baby. She helps the women counter another preconception.

RIPKE: The belief in the perception that women are more emotional or sensitive and working through those, you know, perspectives. And some of the women were saying, you know, I think it's the men that are actually more sensitive.

THYS: All the instructors in this workshop are women. Paula Bruins likes that.

BRUINS: They show a concern for us in a way that they have the same particular feelings or emotions, or they understand a different mindset than, say, a male would.

THYS: Six percent of career firefighters in the United States are women. In Boston, it's 1%. Boston's fire commissioner hopes to offer more workshops just for them.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Thys.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNA MEREDITH'S "HOW TO BE CONFIDENT FOR REAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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