Michigan Departments Upgrade as More Women Join Ranks

Posted: 07-30-2008
Updated: 07-30-2008 09:48:45 AM

Detroit Free Press

Jul. 30--Lt. Bonnie DeMeyere joined the Roseville Fire Department 18 years ago as the only woman in the department. That meant little privacy when it came to sleeping in coed quarters or cleaning up after a fire run.

"There were just facilities for the men," said DeMeyere, who now is one of four women in the Sterling Heights Fire Department. "I would have to go in first and change, and then the guys would use it. Sometimes I felt bad because if I had to take a shower, I had to lock the guys out."

The increase in the number of female firefighters during the last two decades has fire departments throughout the region upgrading their facilities -- and sometimes building new ones -- to include accommodations for women.

During the next year, Eastpointe will improve its station to include an area strictly for the two women on staff to shower. Sterling Heights, meanwhile, is building three stations that will include similar facilities.

These changes are being made even though there is no law mandating women have their own area to shower and sleep. The departments are taking it upon themselves to make these changes, using capital-improvement dollars.

"The goal is to be on the upside and not on the downside," Eastpointe Fire Chief Danny Hagen said of the $600,000 project for his station on 9 Mile. "Things have changed, and they've changed for the better."

Michelle Cattaneo, a Roseville firefighter, said the improvements were just starting to be made when she joined the department six years ago.

"We have a separate locker room, which is good," she said.

The two fire stations in Roseville were built in 1961. Mike Holland, chief of training for the department, said one station was upgraded in 2000 and the other in 2004 to include separate bathroom and shower facilities for women.

The two women on the staff of 45 still sleep in the same dorm room, but there are walls -- about 5 feet tall -- that surround each of the twin-size bunks on all four sides. There is a separate locker room, down the hall from the men's, for the women.

But not having separate facilities for sleeping and showering wasn't a big deal for Cattaneo, she said.

"I have always worked in majority-male fields," she said. "It's not a big deal."

Paul Hufnagel, president of the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union in Trenton, said there are no statistics kept on the number of female firefighters in the state, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that the number has nearly doubled, from 6,000 in 1998 to 11,000 in 2006.

Hufnagel said anecdotal evidence points to an increase in Michigan, and fire stations -- many of which were built in the 1950s and 1960s -- are trying to modernize.

"It's something that is behind the curve a little bit," he said. "A lot of them are just coming on board now. There are more cities hiring female firefighters."

Little touches make the older stations more gender-friendly. The Southfield Fire Department, with four women on staff, now has locks on bathroom doors and dividers in what used to be one big dorm that served as a sleeping area.

Those small adjustments are common in older stations that weren't built with women in mind.

"Most cities, their oldest buildings are their fire stations," Holland said. "Any new facility will have separate quarters. It's all a matter of making our facilities capable of handling both male and female."

Holland said the male firefighters view the females more like sisters than anything.

The Livonia Fire Department just finished renovations at two fire stations that now have separate shower and locker facilities for women and privacy areas around bunks.

That helps the women and the men, Fire Chief Shadd Whitehead said.

DeMeyere agreed.

"I think the guys like the privacy, too," she said.

Contact DAN CORTEZ at 586-826-7264 or dcortez@freepress.com.