Fighting fires: Diversity and inclusion in life-threatening work (Part 1)

A core value of the Rural Fire Service (RFS) is support, friendship and camaraderie. Until this last week, I have never experienced camaraderie with Australian men aged over 50 in my life – it has been awesome. These are guys I have risked my life beside, and trusted with my life multiple times. I have no doubt they will be friends of mine for life now. For a 32-year-old woman, that is a rare gift and I am grateful.

I have spent the last week fighting the Currowan bushfire as part of my local RFS brigade. The fire is more than 82,000 hectares and is burning between Batemans Bay and Ulladulla and has progressed through the Budawang National Park and to the east of Braidwood. As I write this the fire remains out of control. On Thursday December 5, the Currowan fire impacted on the village of Bawley Point, where my family and I live. We were surrounded by fire fronts to the north and south. During the height of activity, fire crews, including my own local Bawley brigade, worked desperately to save houses. Thankfully, no homes were lost in the village.

When I’m not fighting fires ;), I work for Rapid Context as a sociologist specialising in gender diversity in the workplace. I consult with male-dominated organisations who are either seeking to, or are currently in the process of, integrating females into their workplace. Much of my time is spent interviewing women who work in male-dominated organisations, seeking to understand their lived experience and then using that data to inform organisational leadership on how to improve their existing practices of inclusion.

Amongst the many rewarding elements of the last week of firefighting has been the first-hand experience I have gained as a young woman in an RFS brigade comprising mostly of men over the age of 50. Our brigade at Bawley Point consists of 31 members, of which 11 are female. This week, I was one of three female and 12 male members deployed to fight the Currowan fire in our local area. I thought I’d share some immediate observations from the field:

Bawley Point Brigade 1

The novelty factor

As I had heard many times from women I have interviewed, one of the hazards of being a female in a male dominated workplace is that of constantly being put in front of a camera. This week I experienced it first-hand. It’s a hard pill to swallow – but if you are a woman in a male-dominated workplace, you are a novelty. You are ‘good PR’ – you are the media’s ‘money-shot’ – you are your bosses ‘good news story’. And not necessarily for your ability, or for having done anything heroic, but simply because you are not a male. That can get annoying, and it can also cause rifts between you and your male colleagues, if they aren’t good sports about it.

Team diversity and communication

One thing that struck me almost immediately, mid-way through undertaking our first call-out to a fire impacting on a local national park, was the value of gender diverse communication styles in a male-dominated workplace, particularly in emergency and/or high stress situations.

Upon arrival in the national park, we had to evacuate a number of people from a local campsite. We paired off and began checking on each campsite to let them know it was time to leave. I and another female brigade member came across an older Indigenous man who, unlike the other campers, appeared to be making no effort to pack up and get out of there. We let him know the reasons for the suggested evacuation and he let us know his very personal circumstances and why he was choosing to not evacuate. It was an amicable exchange, we thanked him for his time and moved onto the next site.

It was interesting to observe ten minutes later, when an older male member of the brigade approached that same camper, with the same intentions as my female colleague and I, the exchange seemed hostile and heated. It may have simply been the fact that being told the same thing twice in ten minutes was frustrating. But my hunch is that aspects of a typically female communication style may sometimes be more effective in sensitive and emergency situations than a male communication style.

Dr Carol Kinsey Goman’s research into how gender differences in communication play out in the workplace established the following:

Top Three Communication Strengths For Females:

1. Ability to read body language and pick up nonverbal cues.

2. Good listening skills.

3. Effective display of empathy.

Top Three Communication Strengths For Males:

1. Commanding physical presence.

2. Direct and to-the-point interactions.

3. Effective display of power.

Generally speaking, when it comes to communication, Dr Goman found that women tend to display more “warm” body language cues whereas men send more “status” signals through an array of dominant behaviours. A white man sending a “status” signal (amongst other dominant behaviours) to an Indigenous man, whether intentionally or not, in a high-stress emergency evacuation situation, is never going to be well received.

There was another situation later in the week where I observed a similar outcome. It had been a non-stop day of callouts to numerous fires in the village in order to defend local properties. The radio communication system had not been working as well as it should have, so there was a lot of confusion as to which job was the priority for our crew to be responding to. Upon arriving at a property, we quickly realised that there were already sufficient crews tasked to do the job and the majority of our crew felt we could be better utilised at a property under significant threat down the road. After the guys on the truck made several (failed) direct and commanding attempts to convince our male crew leader to proceed to the other property, I decided to jump out of the truck and approach the crew leader privately. I explained the communications that we had received regarding the property down the road and why I thought it may be best we pack up and proceed there. He agreed and we were on our way within five minutes.

In the workplace, people’s communication style is generally assessed (often unconsciously) against two criteria: warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status). The most effective communicators, male and female, are those that balance power and empathy, resulting in a confident and caring communication style. In one particularly life-threatening call-out, there were two male crew members in the front of the truck and three of us females in the back. We were tasked with retrieving an asthmatic man who had stayed to defend his home (and left it too late to leave) which was surrounded by flames. I cannot be sure, but my sense is that the combination of the feminine and masculine dynamic, the mix of warmth and authority for the duration of that call-out, made for a more effective undertaking than had the crew been all male members.

At Rapid Context, when we talk about the value-add of diversity for workplaces, we are not just referring to gender diversity, but diversity of culture, neurodiversity and diversity of age. As I said before, most of the long-term members of my brigade are over 50. However, the majority of members who have joined in the last 12 months are in their 30s or below. One of the skillsets that younger brigade members have brought is their tech-savviness. Diversity of age became extremely useful over the last week, particularly the day the Currowan fire hit Bawley Point.

After a frustrating few days failing to communicate effectively between trucks/crews using the RFS issued radios, on the morning of Thursday Dec 5, a couple of the younger members of the brigade took it upon themselves to set up a brigade WhatsApp group. In just 30 minutes, we had downloaded WhatsApp onto the mobile phones of the older members and were successfully using the app to communicate. When the fire front hit Bawley Point that afternoon, the ground radios weren’t operational and the main comms line was too crowded to use to communicate with our Captain. The WhatsApp group was the brigade’s most effective and efficient vehicle of communication between our captain and the two crews of the Bawley brigade.

Finally, one of the most valuable things I have learnt over the last week is that I can like the guy and hate his misogynistic and sexist behaviour. Further, I can assert my boundaries and call him out on his sexist behaviour and still maintain the friendship and camaraderie I enjoy with my fellow brigade member.

I’ll reflect more on that in Part 2.

Joy Townsend is a Senior Consultant at Rapid Context. Her expertise is in qualitative research design, analysis and implementation. Specialist expertise in gender and sexualities research, and qualitative research methodologies including life history interviewing and narrative analysis.

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