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Women’s History in Seattle Fire

Established in 1889, the Seattle Fire Department has long strived to be an innovative leader for departments across the country. One of the most challenging areas for the fire service has been hiring and retaining women and people of color as firefighters.  

Bonnie Beers became the first full-time female firefighter with SFD in 1977, and despite the difficulty she endured, she laid a path for many women in Seattle’s fire service. Read more here. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Beers. 

By the 1980s, more and more women were joining the department. In 1982, Seattle had 31 female firefighters. In 1984, nine more women were hired, and the first woman entered the Paramedic Technician training program.

Although there were more women being accepted in the fire service, discrimination was still present. In 1987, a discrimination suit was filed against the department after firefighters Carrie Oliver and Carol Solberg were denied disability benefits from the Seattle Fire Department Relief Association. Solberg and Oliver argued that these benefits should be provided to women firefighters during pregnancy just as they would be to any others with temporary disabilities.  

In 1987 the National Association of Female Firefighters held its second annual conference in Seattle. The conference was seen as a huge success with over 300 women gathering. Photo of the conference flyer courtesy of Bonnie Beers, who was a member of the local chapter. 

In 1988 they won their case, and a King County superior court judge ruled that the Relief Association illegally discriminated against them, and other pregnant firefighters, by denying them disabilities benefits. This lawsuit resulted in limited duty policies for pregnant employees across the city. The win subsequently benefited all other employees when light duty assignments then became standard for all members of the department with temporary disabilities. 

Fast forward to June of 2020 when the SFD Women’s Alliance was formed to be “an organization dedicated to training and supporting women throughout their firefighting career and into retirement.” 

The dedication, sacrifice and accountability shown by these women has allowed SFD and fire departments across the country to grow. Now we see women working in all areas of the department as paramedics, dispatchers, fire marshal inspectors, as well as firefighters. 

SFD’s Recruit Prep Program, which was originally designed to help better prepare women who were interested in joining the department, is now open to anyone. This program, as well as SFD’s Fire Prep Program, Cadet Program and EMT courses were all designed with those that have been traditionally underrepresented in the department in mind. 

Our hope is that the Seattle Fire Department can continue as a role model for departments across the world by staying committed to the cities vision: Provide consistent high-level services which promote and strengthen a world class government prepared to meet the emerging needs of the 21st century.  

More information on the history of the department can be found within the Seattle Municipal Archives online exhibit:Strength & Stamina: Women in the Seattle Fire Department”.