In 2015 Rebecca Ninburg, who cofounded the roller derby team the L.A. Derby Dolls, left the skating rink behind to help in local government, where she’s been working as part of the City of Los Angeles Fire Commission to close the gender gap in the mostly male fire department. For Ninburg, recruiting and retaining female firefighters is about more than balancing the scales; it’s key to public safety. “We serve our communities best when we represent them,” she says. “A woman can relate to a woman in ways a man can’t.” Here’s her take on how the LAFD is changing up the ranks.
They’re providing young girls a way in. “We started a girls’ camp. A hundred young women ages 14 to 18 get a two-day introduction to the fire service. They do emergency medical service training, CPR, triage. They learn how to cut holes in rooftops with chainsaws. I get chills every time I go, seeing these young women with huge saws. Even if they don’t become firefighters, we’re pushing them beyond what they thought was possible.”
They’re giving female recruits the training they need. “We’ve developed a mentorship program that preps women to perform this job successfully. They learn the physiological differences between men and women. The system is old and was set up by men for men. They never considered, ‘Oh, the pivot points on women’s hips are different.’ We help women develop upper-body strength, too, which you need for throwing ladders.”
A cultural shift is key. “In any male-dominated profession you have cultural issues that pop up. We’re starting implicit bias training, teaching people to see what they don’t see. It’s about developing personal and social competence. We can’t just train them for 16 or 20 weeks and then say, ‘OK, get out there and go.’ There’s so much more to creating a positive, professional work environment.”
Diversity is also a priority. “We have one of the more diverse fire departments in the world, but we can always be better. The Stentorians is the African American firefighters’ employee organization. They have a robust mentorship program and bring in women as well. They have been extremely successful in working with the chief and working with members—African American, Latino, and Asian—to make sure they have what they need to succeed.”
They’re seeing results. “This last year we’ve had a lot of firsts. We had our first female fire marshal ever. We have our first African American female battalion chief. Last year for the first time a female recruit performed the best at throwing ladders, which has been a little bit of an Achilles’ heel for women. And we had our very first female overall top recruit in the history of LAFD.”