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Reaching out to women, Md. department drops the word ‘firemen’

Howard County Fire crews fight a truck fire on Southbound Interstate 95 on Friday, Sept. 22, 2017. (Courtesy Maryland State Highway Administration)

WASHINGTON — It’s a change to just half of a word, but the newly christened firefighters of one Maryland county, who happen to be women, say it makes all the difference.

The Howard County Council this week passed a bill that changes references to “firemen” to “firefighters” in the county’s code, a vote that followed a name change by the local volunteer fire agency.

“One thing that I’m excited about is the changing of the Howard County Volunteer Firemen’s Association to the Howard County Volunteer Firefighters Association,” said John Butler the county’s fire department chief.

“I’ve never met a young lady who wanted to grow up to be a fireman.”

Assistant Chief Christine Uhlhorn has been a member of the department for nearly three decades. She said recruiting women has long been a challenge, and this shift will help girls envision themselves as firefighters.

“Fireman just isn’t something that fits today’s society where we are trying to recruit, diversify and include others,” Butler said.

“It’s just a word, but it’s a powerful change.”

Julie Casey, a former president of the volunteer association, said the change is indicative of the county’s commitment to gender equity.

Across Maryland, many fire unions and volunteer departments still use “firemen” in their title, but some counties have chosen to use words such as “fire company” and “fire department” instead.

For instance, the volunteer agency in Montgomery County calls itself the “Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association.”

The culture of how fire departments in the region treat women has gained more attention in recent months.

Last month Richard Bowers, the fire chief in Fairfax County, Virginia, announced he would retire in the wake of harassment concerns.

The department was hit with harassment allegations and lawsuits from women who came forward after the 2016 suicide of firefighter Nicole Mittendorff. An investigation into her death turned up numerous sexist comments written about her online.

In late January, Battalion Chief Kathleen Stanley stepped down as head of the department’s women’s program, claiming the agency “tolerates and often defends sexual harassment, retaliation and a hostile work environment.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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