A new organisation to promote diversity and gender equality in the fire service has been launched at the annual conference of Chief Fire Officers today.
The Women's Fire Service Network is designed to attract more women to work in the fire service. Currently, just 2.5% of Ireland's firefighters are women, with this figure falling to 1.6% when it comes to retained firefighters.
Dany Cotton, the commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, addressed the conference about the steps taken to promote gender equality in London. When she joined the London Fire Brigade, just 30 of the 9,000-strong brigade in London were female but balance is improving, she said.
"Things still aren’t brilliant but we are making progress," Ms Cotton said.
"A lot of people don’t understand the role of a firefighter and it is about breaking down perceptions of what the job entails. It is about challenging the mainstream media and fighting outdated stereotypes by using the term 'firefighter' instead of 'fireman'."
Celina Barrett, Co Kildare's chief fire officer, described the current number of women working in the sector as 'abysmal'.
Ms Barrett is one of just two female chief fire officers in Ireland. She joined the Dublin fire service as one of their first two female firefighters 24 years ago and has been a chief fire officer for eight years.
"Just 1.6% of our retained firefighters are women; it is abysmal," she said.
The rate in Ireland is not too different to many international counterparts, she added.
"There are barriers. The term 'fireman', for example, is exclusionary," she said.
The general stereotypes about the role are issues. People picture firefighters as big strong men but our teams are diverse and our roles are diverse. They have different skills and would benefit from more women.
Educational campaigns and community outreach are part of the campaign to get more women to sign up.
Dave Carroll, chairperson of the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA), said now is the time to examine the lack of diversity in the Irish Fire Service.
"We are facing a fundamental re-design of the service to make it fit for purpose," he said.
"In that re-design, we need to ensure that the design is one that fits men and women equally. The idea that women are not a good fit for the fire service, particularly the retained fire service, is unacceptable. We must work to turn it on its head such that we can say at some point in the future that our fire service is a very good fit for women, which will, in turn, ensure that it is a very good fit for all."