Traditionally the Fire and Rescue service has been a male-dominated industry, but there has been a significant increase in the number of female firefighters recruited in the UK in the last twenty years. As the number of women in the Fire and Rescue workforce has increased, gaining a comprehensive understanding of how the physical stresses and demands of firefighting affect them has become a priority, but the service lacks the facilities and expertise to conduct the specialist research that is needed.
In order to help meet that need, Dr Alan Richardson and his team at the University of Brighton conducted an international survey which provides the first comprehensive snapshot of the issues facing women firefighters. The survey, which was distributed to over 800 women firefighters in 14 countries, revealed that one quarter of women firefighters believe that their menstrual cycle affects their response to fire exposures.
Key issues raised included fatigue, pain/discomfort and thermotolerance. 39% of perimenopausal and menopausal women firefighters reported that alteration in thermoregulation is having an impact on their working life.
Back in 2019, the Worshipful Company of Firefighters Charitable Trust received and approved an application for grant funding from the University to support Dr Richardson and his team, enabling them to follow up on some of the issues identified by the survey and examine them in more detail.
Working principally with volunteers from Women in the Fire Service UK, with the support of the National Fire Chiefs’ Council and the Fire Brigades’ Union, the team has examined female firefighters’ thermoregulation during different menstrual stages and in menopause, and also considered what effect the taking of oral contraceptives may have.
This study sought to evaluate how females are affected by severe heat stress while wearing full firefighter personal protective equipment during a walking test of a similar intensity, humidity and temperature to that of a standard live fire training scenario. Females undertook tests in two different phases of their menstrual cycle and were split into groups of those taking or not taking oral contraceptives. A final group of females who were reporting as menopausal or peri-menopausal also undertook the heat tolerance testing.
The research question was whether there were differences in how quickly females in these different groups heated up during the test or whether there was a difference in their perception or physiological response to the heat.
The research required female firefighters, wearing full PPE, to walk into a specially designed heat chamber at the purpose-built Welkin Laboratories and perform a range of physical tasks. Their physiological responses were then measured and analysed. Not only will this understanding help inform female firefighters how best to prepare for fire exposures throughout their career, it will better equip their employers to adequately assess the risks to their firefighters in the execution of their duties. The results of the study are expected to inform a national guidance report.
The study demonstrated no differences in physiological or perceptual responses during menstrual cycle phases, with use of contraceptives or during menopause. We therefore proposed that greater focus should be on methods to improve heat tolerance, such as consistent hydration, maintained heat acclimation, cooling methods, clothing and training status.
Dr Alan Richardson said: “Females make up about 7% of firefighters in the world, yet little research has been done on their health and well-being.
“We are incredibly grateful to the Worshipful Company of Firefighters for supporting this work.”
Bruce Hoad, Vice-Chair of the Worshipful Company of Firefighters Charitable Trust commented: “The Trust is delighted to be able to support this incredibly important piece of work. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with the University, and we hope that this is just the start of a long and productive association between ourselves.”