Women firefighters struggle for first rung

Looking up a career ladder dominated by men, many seek to broaden 'hero' label affixed to the rescuers of Sept. 11

New York City firefighter Adrienne Walsh was blown to the ground by a billowing cloud of black smoke and barely escaped into a nearby basement as the first twin tower collapsed on Sept. 11.

Her colleague, Regina Wilson, was racing toward the scene through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel when it felt as if the underwater roadway had suddenly exploded.

Emerging from underground, Ms. Wilson and her fellow firefighters groped their way shoulder to shoulder into a world turned completely dark. She considers herself fortunate: Six firefighters from her unit, who had arrived only minutes earlier, died in the attack.

"This whole experience has been a reality check on the seriousness of my job," says Wilson, one of 27 women on a force of more than 11,000 firefighters.

In the nearly three months since, all New York firefighters have struggled to return to normal life while searching for the bodies or attending the funerals of 343 missing colleagues.

Female firefighters, however, now have additional challenges on the job: fighting for equal recognition and remaining loyal critics of hiring practices in a fire department suddenly beyond reproach.

Nationwide, 5,600 women work as full-time firefighters, accounting for as much as 15 percent of the departments in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Miami-Dade County, according to Women in the Fire Service, a Madison, Wisc. nonprofit research group. Another 40,000 women volunteer with local fire departments.

But New York lags far behind. Its first woman firefighter, Brenda Berkman, fought her way onto the department nearly two decades ago through the courts.

"It's a great job," says Ms. Berkman, explaining why she switched from practicing law to fighting fires in 1982. "You help people when they really need you."

Early barriers

Berkman says she and other early women firefighters had to endure harassment when they first arrived in firehouses. Some male colleagues would vandalize the women's boots and peer into their dressing rooms through secret peepholes.

The women also had to prove themselves anew every time they switched to a different firehouse that had never hosted female workers before.

"Firehouses or fire departments with extremely traditional occupational cultures tend to be pretty unwelcoming to the first women," says Carol Chetkovich, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who has studied firehouse culture and women firefighters.

And unlike most jobs where the shift eventually ends, firefighters live in the firehouse 24 hours at a time, drilling, cooking, and sleeping in close quarters. It's a boisterous environment, Dr. Chetkovich says, filled with practical jokes, verbal sparring, and constant testing to make sure you're ready when the fire call comes.

Having more women in a firehouse, though, can change the culture, firefighters say. For example, at the Lynbrook, N.Y., volunteer rescue company, 15 of 28 people in the medical company, including the captain, are women. Flowers often adorn their desks. "It's not like going into a man's firehouse," says volunteer EMT Angela Owens.

In New York City, though, the number has never grown past a trickle. After that first set of hires in the early '80s, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) didn't hire any women between 1982 and 1992. One or two have joined the force each year in the past decade.

The physical-strength issue

FDNY officials could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts, but observers say one major barrier is New York's emphasis on a physical-abilities test that requires recruits to drag dummies and hoses, crawl through mazes, and haul ladders.

More recent female recruits in New York and elsewhere say the situation has improved, thanks to more-accepting male colleagues and continued litigation. But the fight for equality doesn't end when a court orders integration.

Earlier this year, a newsletter written by San Francisco firefighters criticized women department members as "sisters-without-backbone," "little girls playing pretend fireman," and "job thieves."

Bringing women into fire departments requires leadership at the top of the department, says Sheila Thomas, director of litigation for San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates.

Minneapolis Fire Chief Rocco Forte, for example, says he made diversifying his department a priority when he took command. Chief Forte created a cultural committee to identify organization barriers blocking women from joining and started a 12-week training program to prepare women for the obstacle- course test.

Now, the passing score is based on the average fitness exam administered to all firefighters each year, so no one can complain that new recruits are lowering standards.

Women currently account for 16 percent of firefighters in Minneapolis, and Forte's goal is 20 percent. "We're better accepted in the community and understand the community better," he says. "It's made us a stronger department."

In New York, women firefighters say they must work to make their roles known, reaching out to women in schools, athletic clubs, and their own families. They also helped organize a program at New York's city college that gives women four months of physical training before the test.

Equal-opportunity heroism?

While no women firefighters were among those who died in the World Trade Center, two female police officers and an emergency medical technician were killed in the collapse.

And though the FDNY's female firefighters raced to the World Trade Center in equal proportion to their male counterparts, their contributions have received little attention. Heroism, they say, has been defined in decidedly male terms.

"We've worked just as hard, just as patriotically, and in just as dedicated a manner as men," says Berkman, now an FDNY lieutenant. "It's important for Americans to know all the different kinds of people who contribute to the defense of their country."

Berkman and other women firefighters say they aren't sure how they'll nudge the department to hire more women while mourning still overshadows other business.

So far, they simply point to the numbers. In October, FDNY inducted its first class of recruits after the attack: 308 men and zero women.

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