17 Mar 2004 Boarding house fire on Lytton Road East Brisbane - firefighters fighting the blaze PicBruce/Long smoke flames hoses fires qld
17 Mar 2004 Boarding house fire on Lytton Road East Brisbane - firefighters fighting the blaze PicBruce/Long smoke flames hoses fires qld

Female firey told: ‘Test so hard none of you b****es will pass’

HAS the Palaszczuk Government secretly made it harder for women to become frontline firefighters?

That's certainly the view among some serving members of the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service, who are appalled at a new physical test quietly introduced for recruits this year.

According to one veteran firefighter, powerful figures within the service, who have never believed women belong among the men, are even boasting about implications of the new test.

One was overheard in a station recently telling a female firefighter "we even have made the recruitment physical so hard none of you bitches will make it through".

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk says there have been great changes in equality in Queensland. Picture: Darren England
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk says there have been great changes in equality in Queensland. Picture: Darren England

That certainly jars with the image of great gains towards equality that Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk portrayed this week at the United Nations International Women's Day Breakfast in Brisbane.

"I walk into rooms now and I might have three or four of my ministers - because we have 50 per cent women in our Cabinet - and we can have a meeting where it is entirely women," Ms Palaszczuk told the audience.

"And I sit back sometimes and I think 'that is great change'."

Sure, Palaszczuk has made other great changes too.

Women now make up more than 50 per cent of Government boards and Queensland has its first female police commissioner in Katarina Carroll and first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Catherine Holmes.

But this is the relatively easy stuff and Ms Carroll and Ms Holmes were outstanding candidates who picked themselves, regardless of their gender.

The much tougher task is breaking down the male-dominated domains that trenchantly resist change and don't want women doing their job simply because they are women.

Katarina Carroll
Katarina Carroll

And that is certainly what some fear is occurring within Queensland's fire service.

Throughout 2019, QFRS ran five recruitment drives with 148 people, including 24 women, successfully passing the selection process, which includes cognitive, psychological and medical assessments, criminal history checks as well as the physical.

After the 16-week training course that followed, 142 of the recruits got jobs, including 20 of the women.

However, under the new physical testing regime, just two of the 56 people that made it through the selection processes and into the two recruit courses currently under way are women.

I'm told the number of female applicants was around 200.

Already that's a marked decline in potential women firefighters.

Craig Crawford, Queensland's Minister for Fire and Emergency Services, insists toughening the physical assessment was all about making sure the state's firefighters can do the job.

"The changes were made to more accurately reflect the inherent physical requirements of the role of a firefighter and apply to all recruits," he said.

"Firefighting is a physically demanding role that requires periods of intense and sustained physical activity - they face the unique situation among emergency workers where they must have the physical capacity to remove members of the public or other firefighters from danger.

Queensland’s Fire and Emergency Services Minister Craig Crawford. Picture: Stewart McLean
Queensland’s Fire and Emergency Services Minister Craig Crawford. Picture: Stewart McLean

"The physical assessment requirements are similar physical requirements in other Australian states. The physical test is upon entry. Firefighters are provided with the equipment necessary to maintain their physical health."

Crawford is correct, of course. But firefighters have always needed the strength to drag people from a burning building so what's changed?

I'm told the new physical was tested on serving firefighters and three quarters of them failed.

So if its all really about ensuring firefighters have the "inherent physical requirements" some might question why it isn't being retrospectively applied.

Former premier Campbell Newman ordered a review of QFRS six years ago following revelations male firefighters used social media to rank which female colleague would be best in bed.

Some of the women who lodged sexual harassment complaints found themselves unceremoniously transferred to other stations.

The review by former public service commissioner Margaret Allison was damning.

Not only did the report find the QFRS failed the complainants, it exposed a toxic culture that was "totally hostile" towards female firefighters.

Firefighters fighting a blaze in Brisbane. Picture Bruce Long
Firefighters fighting a blaze in Brisbane. Picture Bruce Long

Among other things, the report found every one of those interviewed had been told they were unwanted and accused of passing a "lesser standard of physical fitness".

"In some cases it is openly asserted that sexual favours must have been provided in exchange for successful completion of the academy program," Ms Allison reported.

Long-serving fire commissioner Lee Johnson insisted the vast majority of firefighters behaved appropriately after the report's release.

He then fast-tracked his retirement plans.

Newman tasked Ms Carroll, the current Police Commissioner, with cleaning up the QFRS's culture but acknowledged this would take time.

"I think it will take some years … I would see it taking probably three to five years," he said.

Carroll did an admirable job but clearly the task is not complete.

The next time Palaszczuk peers across her Cabinet room she might want to ask her ministers what they've done to address inequality.

She should start with the bloke running her fire department.

Catherine Holmes
Catherine Holmes