FRANKLIN, Ind. – In its 155 years in operation, the City of Franklin Fire Department has only had one woman ever serve as a full-time firefighter, until recently.
In January, Casey Whitaker was hired to serve on the Franklin Fire Department, moving from her role as an EMT on the city’s contracted ambulance service, which she has held for several years.
Whitaker says she wants to make one thing clear, and that’s the fact she was hired as a firefighter based on her qualifications and hard work, not her gender. But she also hopes it encourages more women to apply for firefighter positions.
“I want to be chosen for who I am, not because I’m a woman. I want to be chosen because I am the best candidate, and that’s what I did,” said Whitaker.
“She brings a different view to our culture, which will only help enrich it,” said Matt Culp, who has served as fire chief of the Franklin Fire Department for just over a year.
Whitaker is currently the only female firefighter on the department.
Culp said the city has been working with an organization for bias training and to get ideas on how to tap into more resources to help diversify its department.
He is also speaking with local diversity experts and minority firefighting associations in central Indiana to help improve their recruiting practices and advertising during the upcoming hiring process.
“I’m really, really excited,” said Tara Payne, chief of staff for the City of Franklin. “I honestly think this is a great step forward in inclusion and equity for all departments.
“He didn’t hire Casey just because she’s a female. He hired her because she’s qualified and a great fit for the department.“
Whitaker said she always wanted to be a firefighter but never knew if she physically had what it took.
“I found myself being a single mom, with a 2-year-old, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna do it, not just for myself,’” said Whitaker. “I’m gonna do it for her. I’m gonna show her that she can do whatever she wants physically, mentally, she can do it.”
She said what was most inspiring was meeting other women who went through class or testing with her and cheering each other on.
“When we do the test, it’s all men and then just a sprinkling of women, but it’s been great to have that competition, but have it be so motivating and empowering to each other,” she added.
Whitaker said she trained by doing drills, pulling hose lines and going over interview preps. “I don’t want to be given special treatment,” she said.
“A lot of people have said to me in the past, ‘Oh you got a job offer or you got an extra interview because you’re a woman,” said Whitaker. “On a list, you don’t put male or female.
“I did the same tests, the same physical tests, everything, and you place where you do on a list, and women can absolutely do it. They’re just not applying,” she said.
Culp hopes Casey’s hiring will serve as an example that women can and should apply firefighting jobs.
“She’s more than qualified, and we just need to make sure that keeps happening in the future so more females and different minorities get on,” he said.
The hiring of Whitaker also opens up a bigger conversation about the firefighting industry as a whole and the history of its diversity.
In 2018, data provided by Data USA showed more than 95% of America’s career firefighters were male. The data also cited a significant salary gap between men and women firefighters.
The International Association of Fire Fighters said this hasn’t changed much over the past several years.
“The fire service as a whole had been, and continues to be in some part, primarily white men,” said James Ridley, assistant to the General President of Education Training and Relations for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
“If you’re only hiring your first or second on the fire department, then you realize you have a problem when it comes to diversifying your fire department,” said Ridley.
He said it’s important to have fire departments that reflect the hue of the communities they serve.
Recent census data from 2019 in Franklin shows a population of approximately 25,608 people. Data shows approximately 51.2% of the residents are female.
Ridley said he also wants to make a point that diversity does not always mean color or gender.
“It has a lot to do with thought as well. You’re not going to experience that diversity until you begin to hire people with diverse thoughts, diverse backgrounds or are diverse entirely.”
Ridley said having a department that reflects the hue of the community will help strengthen the bond between the community and fire department that serves it.
“To me that is important why you have that. Our jobs don’t always call for us to go out and put out fires,” he said. “More than half of our calls have to do with pre-hospital care response.”
Some of those responses are providing CPR and helping injured persons.
“There’s a real nurturing process that goes along with that, and part of that has to do with being able to not only assess the patient, but to make that patient feel calm, help relax that patient and to also help bring some calm and ease to those family members that are standing around saying to you please, please help my loved one,” Ridley shared.
“In most instances I think women can bring that nurturing process to that emergency response, and in doing that, it’s going to elevate the level of trust that the community has with those firefighters that are coming into their homes.”
Ridley said if departments want to be more diverse, it begins with their recruiting practices, something the Franklin Fire Dept. is already working to improve.
“I would encourage departments to continue to recruit. So you have to recruit, you have to hire, and more importantly, you have to retain. You know, you can’t just say you’re on the job, now figure it out,” said Ridley.