DENVER — More than two years after two firefighters sued the Denver Fire Department (DFD) for discrimination against their race and gender, the department has embraced its differences. More women have joined the ranks at the department, but there’s still work that needs to be done.
“Our first woman firefighter in the department was in 1985, which was not that long ago,” said Kathleen Vredenburgh, deputy chief at the Denver Fire department. “We’ve made huge progress in the changes that are more conducive to an inclusive work environment that include women.”
DFD couldn’t comment on the lawsuit because the case is still in litigation. DFD did release the following statement:
“Denver Fire chooses to embrace the differences that all our firefighters bring to the table. We believe that our differences make us stronger and help the people we serve to see themselves represented when they see us respond to their emergencies. The Women Firefighters of the Denver Fire Department (WFFD), with support of the Chief of the Department, work daily while on shift and even on their days off to push themselves to be the best firefighters they can be, and this dedication to our community and to our job is something common to the calling of every firefighter.”
Firefighting is more accepting for women now than it used to be. As a female firefighter, in a male-dominated industry, Vredernburg believes anyone can be a firefighter nowadays.
“I’m extremely proud of the Denver fire department and that we’ve made that a priority for women and people of color," she said.
When emergency calls come in, women firefighters have said it's rare for two or three women to be in the same truck, let alone work the same shift at the same station.
Denver's women firefighters
“It is exciting to me to see other women believing in themselves,” said Elaine Higginbotham, who has been with the department for six years. “Women can do things and can do this job because that is the entire purpose of the academy. Push your limits that you realize you didn’t even have.”
Currently, the Denver Fire Department has 999 firemen and 82 firewomen, which means women make up 8% of the entire department. Six years ago, when Higginbotham started, there were half as many women.
“If you’re not coming from a male-dominated field, there can be challenges," Higginbotham said. "The challenge of being a female on this department or really in any male-dominated field is being able to step into and own space.”
The fire department has made changes to make it inclusive for everyone. For example, just three years ago, some of those changes included uniforms that would fit women firefighters properly because firefighter uniforms were designed for men.
“We finally were able to get female workpants," Higginbotham said. "They stretch, have a waistband, obviously we have hips and curves, so it helps us to be more successful on the job.”
Emotional strength and being in the right headspace are also needed, especially when women and men go into dangerous situations to serve and protect the community. The women in the department are proud to break barriers and show others that women can be firefighters too.
“There are different ways we can maneuver and use our strength,” Higginbotham said. “If there’s a burning building, and you ask if I can pull you out of the burning building, I’m going to say yes, not only can I do it, but I have four different ways of doing it, in case the other three don’t work.”
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