Meet the woman advocating for more female firefighters
Over the past few weeks, Americans across the country have watched the persistent, seemingly unstoppable wildfires blaze across California. While plenty have praised the brave firefighters working to quench these flames, few of us truly know what it takes to do that work. Even fewer have stopped to question what that experience is like for female firefighters.
United Women Firefighters is working to do just that, albeit on the opposite coast. UWF is an affinity group of women firefighters working in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). Their mission is “charitable and educational” and the organization hopes to “unite in sisterhood and promote the interests and welfare of women firefighters and women fire officers in the city of New York.”
Sarinya Srisakul, President of UWF, spoke to FBomb about the organization, her experience and why we need more female firefighters.
Why does United Women Firefighters exist? Can you share a little bit about the history of female firefighters?
In 1977, the NYC fire department opened up their [firefighter] test to women for the first time. The problem was, they changed the physical test to make it much harder than it was before, essentially making the test so hard that none of the women were able to pass it. The test wasn’t even reflective of what firefighters have to do on a day-to-day basis. A woman named Brenda Berkman decided to sue the Fire Department. She won, and in 1982, 41 women became firefighters in NYC for the first time.
The women in the 1980s were treated like trash. Firefighters’ wives protested them — they picketed outside the firehouses. The female firefighters would find glass in their boots and their air tanks leaked. One woman was stabbed in the firehouse: The other firefighters glued an anti-women [sign] on the wall of the firehouse, and when she was scraping it down a guy took the knife she was using from her and stabbed her with it. The union had a collection for the guy and hired him to work in the union office. It’s sad because it wasn’t that long ago — it was the ‘80s and ‘90s — and we work with a lot of people who were around during that time, including our leadership. Meeting these women, knowing these women, they’re like, “We suffered so much, it’s great to see young women come on the job. We didn’t suffer in vain.” They suffer from PTSD and everything.
It’s still a fight for us to have equality in the fire department. It was only last year that women’s bathrooms were installed in all the firehouses. There was an uproar about that — like, “There are so few women on this job, why do you deserve bathrooms? Why are we spending millions of dollars on bathrooms when we could be spending it on overtime?” It’s just indicative of how sexist a lot of people are in the department.
We still live with that legacy, but I don’t go to work fearing for my life like these women did back then. Women today are treated much better than they were back in 1982, but our numbers aren’t that much better now. Sixty-seven women work as firefighters in NYC; 0.6 percent of the FDNY is composed of women. Nationally the percentage is around 4 percent. We have the worst gender disparity out of all the major cities in the country. San Francisco is at 15 percent women, Minneapolis and Seattle are 10 percent women. We’re looking to get more women in the NYC department so we can be like other departments in this country.
Why do you think women still go into this profession despite this male domination and discrimination?
I love that we’re helping people. That’s what attracted me to this job. I also like that this isn’t an office job. It’s exciting, you’re working outside, you’re doing something different every day. If you’re an adventurous person, then this is the perfect job for you. Also, the pay is really good, the benefits are really good, the schedule is really good.
A certain kind of woman is motivated to do this job. For us, it’s a calling, so we deal with some irritating things — like the backlash against women’s bathrooms — because we really do want this job.
Can you describe the process of what it takes to become a firefighter?
First you take a multiple-choice, computer-based test. You have to score high enough on that to get invited to do the physical test, an obstacle course called CPAT, which is rolling throughout the year. Most of the time during the CPAT, you have to wear a 50-pound weight vest. The first event requires you to wear 75 pounds while climbing upstairs, then you have to do a whole obstacle course in under 10 minutes and 20 seconds.
The next big step after passing the physical test is to attend Fire Academy. It’s a lot of long days: You get there at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning and you’re there for 8-12 hours. It’s grueling.
You do what they call “evolutions,” which are mock-ups of fires. So they’ll have a fire in a store and you have to go through all the positions that are required to fight this fire in the store, or they’ll have fire in a highrise or fire in a basement — all tactically different things. You do that while wearing basic gear, which weighs 60 pounds, but with tools and everything can weigh up to 130 pounds. You also have classes, lectures, and quizzes that are really difficult. Every day you have PT, which is like gym class but really physically demanding. It’s really difficult.
United Women Firefighters runs a year-round training program to help women prepare for the test and the academy. We do it on our own without any help from the FDNY, so the program is 100 percent reliant on donations or foundation grants. We have this really awesome crowdfunding campaign that’s running until Halloween. We need help from other women to continue doing what we do.
What has your personal experience being a firefighter been like?
Whenever something’s happening, I want to be there helping. When Hurricane Sandy happened, I was in the middle of it for the whole week. I work in the East Village — we lost power, there was flooding up until Avenue A — and when I wasn’t at work, I was at home helping people in the Rockaways. I love that I’m able to be a part of my community and help people during their time of greatest need and make a difference. It’s just in my nature to do stuff like that.
What have some other women faced while pursuing this work? For example, your organization recently announced that four mothers just became FDNY firefighters. What were their experiences like?
I wanted to highlight these four mothers to show other young women that if these women can do it, they can do it, too. Fire Academy is really hard both mentally and physically. It’s very long days, it’s a lot of studying, it’s a lot of physical exhaustion. It’s one of the most challenging things anyone going through this process will ever do in their lives. But the fact that these women did that, then came home and took care of their kids, and still were able to pass is really remarkable. Forty people failed out of their class, but they stuck with it and were able to succeed. I was 24 when I went through this process. I didn’t have kids and it was still hard for me. I can’t imagine being a mother and doing this. I’m so impressed by them.
What do you think are some of the more under-discussed aspects of female firefighters’ experiences?
If you look at the news stories about the California wildfires, some the firefighters fighting those blazes are incarcerated women who get paid about $2 a day. They can’t pursue this work once they get released from prison because the LAFD doesn’t hire people with felonies on their records. Women have been doing this work for a long time, but the issue is getting parity in the workplace.
On the bright side in terms of parity, while women generally make less money than men do, female firefighters make the same money as all these guys do, and it’s a lot. We’re making six figures. If you’re in any trades — if you’re a carpenter or an electrician, for example — you can make six figures. I’m in a profession that makes me feel proud of what I do and I don’t worry about money.
One of the other things that’s great about having a city job like this is the pension. I started this career at 24 years old and I can retire at 44. Not many people can say that. Blue-collar work isn’t on a lot of people’s radars in this day and age, but it’s a shame because it really is fulfilling.
What’s next for United Women Firefighters?
We have a milestone of getting 100 women on the job, which would [raise the percentage of women in the FDNY to] about 1 percent. We’ve never had triple digits of women working in NYC. It’s ridiculous, but we’re working really hard to achieve that milestone. We want the best women out there to represent other women in the fire department — It’s really vital to get more women on the job.
To support UWF, check out their crowdfunding campaign here.
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