My Canadian EMS friend, Stephan, asked if I would write an article about women in EMS. I found myself going back to how things were when I started in the early 80's as opposed to how things are today. I thought I might share with you. What were your experiences?
When I started my EMS career in Southern California in the early 80’s, there were very few women in the field. On my first ambulance job, there was myself on one shift and a gal named Lori on the other. That wouldn’t have been so bad except for the “female attendant” rule. In LA County, no female 5150 could be transported without a woman in the unit. So, that meant I got to run all my calls plus everyone else’s female 5150s. The company had about six units in the area. The male partners I worked with weren’t crazy about the extra workload. It was made worse by the fact we were working a very busy 911 transport unit. (LA County Fire paramedics don’t transport: they rely on the local private ambulance company. I think that was the first true 1:1 BLS/ALS system). There was also the fact that we had a major state psych facility in our area and we could expect several trips to the county hospital on a daily basis. 15-17 calls a day wasn’t unusual. By my second year as an EMT I decided I needed to go to paramedic school. Even though I loved the business, I was already burned out!
What about relationships? The thing that aggravated me the most when I was trying to establish myself, (and therefore all women) as competent, the company would a hire a cute little 110 pound blonde ( blondes, don’t get your panties in a wad. Back then I was a 120 pound blonde!) who had more interest in finding a firefighter for a boyfriend than taking care of the old or infirm; and the world would end if they mussed their hair or broke a nail. The firefighters were more than glad to carry her equipment or lift her side of the gurney (or occasionally take her out), but she never really gained their respect as a prehospital professional.
There were plenty of naysayers that were strong in their beliefs that women had no right to be on ambulances any more than on fire engines. (Some of them are still around). There was also no question that the work was physically demanding … a lot more than it is now. We had two-man gurneys that had to be ground lifted, and the paramedic equipment that surrounded the patient was a lot heavier. All of that and, of course, the patient, had to be factored into the total weight I had to share with my partner. After a long shift my back was hamburger, but it wasn’t a gender thing. He was hurting as much as I was. There was definitely chiropractic service in my future! The good part was the upper body conditioning. I had some pretty good guns back then!
I worked primarily with two different fire departments: LA County and Santa Fe Springs. When I started, there was initial skepticism, but most of the firefighters gave me the opportunity to prove myself as an EMT, then a medic, and a person. Before long I was spending half my day at LA County Station 20 and had made some good friends at SFS Fire. Some of them are still friends today.
Even back then, before women in the field were as acceptable as they are today, making relationships had a lot more to do with attitude than gender. Yes, I went in with a deficit and had to work harder to prove myself, but, if you’re competent, you’ll gain respect. Even now, if a new EMT or medic comes into a new area with a “look at me, I’m a Paragod” attitude, it won’t take long before they’re ignored by the guys and the butt of firehouse gossip. It takes a lot longer to undo a bad first impression than to create a good one in the first place.
In my case, as an EMT wanting to go to medic school, I made it clear I was going to absorb all the information and training I could from those ALS firefighters. Recognizing that, they took the time to teach me about reading EKGs, pharmacology, cardiology, and critical thinking skills. It was a blessing that I was able to work alongside them as a partner. It prepared me well. A few of them even had the desire to train me to be the first LACO female firefighter, but that didn’t happen. It was actually a good thing. Cindy, the real first female had one hell of a time establishing herself. I was working in the same area with her and interacted with her even though she wasn’t at that station all that long. I tried to ease her load a bit. It was much like being two hens in a yard full of roosters. We had to look out for each other. I didn’t envy her. She was the one carrying the torch for all of womankind and the whole world was watching.
So, times have changed and a female on an ambulance or in a firehouse isn’t all that unusual. But remember: how you’re treated, and how positively your reputation is established has much more to do with how you treat others and show respect to them. Firefighters are a team, and to be accepted as part of that team, they have to learn to trust you. If you approach your job with an attitude that’s open to constructive criticism and have a “teach me” mindset, it may make the difference on whether you’re seen as someone who’s tolerated or someone who’s respected as a part of the team.
Stay safe out there!