Getting the right fit for women to excel in one of the most challenging paramedic roles in the NHS

It’s one of the most challenging and dangerous roles in the NHS but it lacks female representation. Hazardous Area Response Team operatives save lives in enclosed spaces, toxic areas and terrorist attacks but there are obstacles to entry for women such as ill-fitting PPE and limited post pregnancy support, explains Jenna Davies, Improvement Manager at the National Ambulance Resilience Unit.

That’s why the National Ambulance Resilience Unit, which trains paramedics to join these specialist units within ambulance services around the country, has created a Gender Profile Working Group. This aims to cultivate an optimum career pathway into these highly specialist services for all women (including those who identify as women).

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is vital for Hazardous Area Response Teams (HART) and Special Operation Response Teams (SORT) operatives, but it’s mainly designed with men in mind. Many female staff struggle with different aspects of the available PPE, such as the range of available sizes and basic practical considerations such as where zips are to allow operatives to go to the toilet.

NARU carried out data analysis into this issue and found out that the percentage of women across England’s HART and SORT units is very low and the organisation wanted to understand the possible reasons why in the hope of mitigating or resolving some of these issues. NARU is determined to increase the percentage of female operatives in these teams nationally.

Jenna Davies with an IRU vehicle

To date several meetings have taken place and a number of areas progressed based on feedback, such as the addition of pre and post maternity courses for our Fitness Instructors. This allows for women, on or returning from maternity, to be supported with their fitness, which in turn will support their return to work and provide vital support in, for example, reducing the anxiety they often face relating to passing the mandatory Physical Competency Assessment before returning to operations.

National guidance on women returning to work from maternity is being developed to ensure all elements of the process are captured so that it can be as supportive and inclusive as possible. This is based on feedback that has highlighted a requirement for more detailed processes to be in place and more knowledge in this area as giving birth can have a huge impact on a woman’s body.

Because of this it is imperative they are provided the opportunity to ensure that undertaking physically demanding roles such as HART and SORT is not going to have a negative impact on their physical health.

There has been an increase in women attending the Technical User Groups, which has meant that a woman’s perspective is considered when developing specifications for PPE and equipment, such as a zip in the appropriate location on a dry suit to assist women using the toilet without having to get fully de-kitted. Additionally, more women are attending evaluations for PPE and equipment so alternative body shapes are factored in when grading comfort and design for example.

NARU will ensure that no PPE evaluation takes place without representation for women. An item of clothing that is currently being processed to be provided to each member of staff in HART is a changing robe to assist with dignity whilst changing on the side of the road. This has already been implemented in some Trusts and the feedback from both women and men has been nothing but positive.

One of the main reasons for some women not joining HART is due to the lack of flexible working hours, especially for those with children. NARU is working to change this by securing additional funding which will allow Trusts to support this while still maintaining the required numbers on shift each day which is a difficult balance to achieve.

Feedback on the group is very positive as it provides women with a platform to be heard, allowing them to share their concerns and ideas to help improve their working environments.  

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