Training to be a firefighter is grueling. So is the work itself.
Women are more than equal to the task — but when it comes to being pregnant on the job, these women are facing a whole other fight.
It’s an especially pressing matter for “hotshots,” or firefighters who battle wildfires in particular. The work, and the training programs that go along with it, are especially grueling. (For some, preparation involves lugging over 70 pounds of gear up a bit of terrain affectionately known as “Cardiac Hill,” as an example.)
“I think about how this will affect my chances of getting pregnant all the time,” Sofia Huston, one such “hotshot,” told The Fuller Project, a nonprofit news organization that reports on women, adding that she hasn’t had her period in 3 years. “Not just because of my lack of period, but also hormonal issues — not to mention smoke inhalation, lack of sleep.”
Women in Fire, which represents women firefighters — who comprise about 8 percent of all firefighters in the United States — is one organization pushing for change. Specifically, they are advocating for guaranteed lighter duty for pregnant firefighters, and breastfeeding options for those who have recently given birth, The Fuller Project reported.
However, the problem goes beyond such allowances. Data on the health effects of firefighting on women, or the effects of fire exposure on their reproductive systems or fetuses, is scarce. But recent research led by Dr. Sara Jahnke, the director and senior scientist at the National Development & Research Institute, shows that 27 percent of women firefighters’ pregnancies end in miscarriages, and another 16.7 percent end in preterm births.
For comparison, the national average for miscarriages is 10 to 15 percent, and for preterm births, 10 percent.
These increases are due to both the intense nature of the work — especially for hotshots — and to the lack of properly fitting gear for women, which places women firefighters at a higher risk of exposure to smoke and toxic fumes. “Women are being failed by a system that is intrinsically built around, and for, men,” Jahnke was quoted as saying by The Fuller Project.
Last year, Jahnke received a $1.5 million grant that will be used to fund a research project on the impacts of firefighting on reproductive health. But experts agree that more needs to be done — and said — on behalf of women firefighters. “The people who need to be beating the drum on this issue more than anyone else need to be the people in the majority,” she added.
Firefighter Huston agrees that something needs to be done for women firefighters, and soon — especially those on the frontlines of wildfires that are only growing in frequency and intensity due to climate change. As she said to The Fuller Project, “I know this is not sustainable. Honestly, I don’t know how much more my body can take.”