For the first time in 40 years, Park City Fire District has no female firefighters
Former employee says district culture prompted women to leave
There are no female firefighters employed by the Park City Fire District for the first time since the 1980s, a reality that the district’s leadership attributes to a challenging hiring climate but that has drawn criticism from at least one former employee.
Park City Fire Chief Bob Zanetti indicated that it has seldom been harder to hire qualified candidates and that few female candidates apply in an industry that is more than 90% staffed by men nationwide.
“It’s not good,” he said of the lack of female firefighters.
Shellene Vetterli, a retired former Park City firefighter, sees a different reason, however. She claims the lack of female firefighters is the result of leadership decisions that have created a culture unwelcoming to women.
“There’s zero women in Park City Fire, and this is the first time in over 40 years. And it’s not normal in fire departments in Utah to have zero women,” Vetterli said. “We’re the lowest of all departments. And I think it’s a red flag, and me and the other women want the community to know that zero is not acceptable and it’s not typical, and it’s just not how the fire service nationwide is moving.”
She said the district’s recruitment, hiring and promotion of firefighters reinforces the idea that firefighters should be white men.
Zanetti disputed the notion that the district doesn’t want female firefighters, pointing instead to a challenging hiring market, the low number of female firefighters nationwide and the low number of women who apply to work at the district.
He confirmed that there have been no female firefighters working for the district since two women left in July. He said it was the first time the district hasn’t employed a female firefighter since the 1980s.
The district is readying to hire a new crop of firefighters, its largest class ever. All are male. Of 138 total employees in the district, 20 are women.
Zanetti said the district sees between 80 and 120 applicants in a typical year and that, in a strong year, 5% might be women. Some years, no women apply. And the district only hires a small percentage of applicants.
“Obviously, the numbers in our district are not where they need to be,” Zanetti said.
The Summit County Council controls the district’s budget. Council Chair Glenn Wright said recruiting firefighters is not easy, especially in the current labor market.
“We have asked the Administrative Control Board, ‘Are there things we can do better for recruitment?’” he said, referencing the authority that oversees the district. “I think it’s something they have to work on, and I think we can.”
Zanetti said the district recruits on social media, at colleges, in high school EMT classes and from the ranks of local ski patrols and the military.
State law requires military veterans be given preference in hiring, Zanetti said. He was unsure whether other classes of candidates could be similarly advantaged. He indicated he did not think such a move was warranted for female candidates.
“I don’t think we need to go there now,” he said.
According to a 2020 study from the National Fire Protection Association based on data collected in 2018, 8% of firefighters nationwide are female; half that many are career firefighters.
Those numbers have increased nationwide in the last 20 years, but the number of women in the Park City Fire District ranks has not.
Vetterli said women have left the district because its policies are unfriendly to women, there are no women in leadership positions and no prospect for career advancement. She also said the district has garnered a statewide reputation among potential firefighter candidates.
Zanetti estimated the last time the district promoted a woman was 2010. He denied that the district has a negative reputation and said if there were problems with the culture, he’d know about them.
Vetterli said she was not harassed by other firefighters while working for the district and enjoyed working with her colleagues. The problem, she said, was with leadership.
She said she was passed over for promotion despite high test scores, experience and training positions. She said she attempted to initiate a diversity and mentoring program but was rebuffed by a supervisor, who indicated the district was not interested. And she said women did not receive promotions.
Zanetti was named chief this summer after serving as deputy chief for years under former Chief Paul Hewitt, who died this year in an off-duty accident.
Zanetti said one of his first acts was to create eight new EMT positions, which he views as being attractive to people considering firefighting careers, including women. The positions provide a way to mentor potential firefighters who are considering the career, he said, and a less-intensive first step into the career.
“My personal feeling is diversity needs to be an action. And I feel I’m taking action,” he said. “Because it won’t just happen. If you wait for it to happen, from my experience in the fire service, it won’t happen.”
Vetterli started as a volunteer EMT with the district in 1996 and was hired as a full-time firefighter paramedic in 2000. She said she left the district voluntarily in 2017 and later retired from the South Salt Lake City Fire Department. Her father and brother were both Park City firefighters, she said.
She said the district would be better served with a diverse crew of firefighters.
“You know, 47% of Park City is female, and most of those calls are medical. You’re going to encounter a lot of women, and sometimes women feel more comfortable with women,” she said. “… If 24% is Latino, it helps to have people that maybe know Spanish or are familiar with the culture, make people feel more comfortable so that you can assess them better. Even on fire calls, it helps to have diversity. You make a stronger decision and provide a better service if you have diversity making a decision together.”
Zanetti said the district does not lack Spanish speakers and that other tools are available to communicate with Spanish speakers, including other first responders, dispatchers and translation apps.
He indicated that the district’s hiring practices have been focused on finding the strongest firefighters and said he is confident in the service the district provides.
“I feel people are pretty happy to see us arrive when they’re in need,” he said. “… I think it’s a bigger issue that we are able to address whatever issue we come across: somebody drowning, somebody trapped in a car, somebody (whose) house is on fire. I think as a whole you want, when you call 911, you want that problem addressed.”
Vetterli said her motivation for speaking out was to call attention to the issue and ask the community whether they want a fire district with no female firefighters.
“It’s not right,” she said. “I’m from Park City and educated here. You should stick up for what you believe in, that’s how I was educated in Park City. I care about Park City. These are the people that come to my house if I have an emergency. I feel like it should be a diverse, strong, skilled, competent group.”
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