Women in Firefighting

In honor of Fireman’s Hall Museum’s store’s new t-shirts for women (in crew and v-neck!) – we decided to do some research on the history of women in the Philadelphia Fire Department and in firefighting.

The first female firefighter in the 114 years of the paid Philadelphia Fire Department, Paulette Kennedy, joined the Philadelphia Fire Department in 1985 but the history of women in firefighting begins almost 200 years prior.

In Pittsburgh, for instance, there were female slaves who fought fires with the male volunteer companies in the early 19th century. There were female volunteer companies formed in the early 1900’s in Maryland and California and during World War II, many women took on the jobs previously dominated by men. Firefighting was considered a necessary occupation so firefighters were not drafted but many enlisted. There were enough male replacements in Philadelphia to fill the spaces left by those who enlisted but other cities filled the gaps with women. After WWII, there were several all-female fire companies, including forest fire companies, scattered around the country.

Female WWII Firefighting

This famous photograph depicts female civilians learning to fight fires during a training exercise at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard during WWII.

22 years after Paulette Kennedy paved the way for women in the Philadelphia Fire Department, Diane Schweizer became the first female chief in the PFD in 2007 when she was appointed chief of Emergency Medical Services Operations. Schweizer was never a firefighter but was an experience paramedic in the department. She was tasked with overseeing the department’s 300+ paramedics and 45 ambulances during a time when fire runs were on the decline and medical runs were climbing. As of 2007, about 2% of Philadelphia’s firefighters were women and 32% of the paramedics were women. Since 1985, the PFD has seen many women perform heroically alongside their male counterparts on the fire ground.

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