WMC News & Features

New York's Firefighting Women

Brenda Berkman

Women firefighters have served New York City for 30 years, but their numbers are still tiny in comparison to men. Recently a pioneer among them, Brenda Berkman, examined why.

On September 11, firefighters from New York City’s five boroughs made their way to services commemorating their fallen, as they have in former years. As a group, they were easy to spot in navy-blue, worsted wool dress uniforms and bell caps. Much harder to pick out were the women among their suited numbers.

Of the 10,000 firefighters in New York City, only 28 of them are female. That’s an astonishingly small number, especially considering that the percentage of the NYPD that’s female is 18 percent, the female percentage of military personnel currently serving in active duty is 14.6 percent, and that in 1982, the first year that women were allowed into the Fire Department of New York, there were almost twice as many of them as there are today.  

In observation of the 30th anniversary of women in the FDNY, a panel of advocates, media members, and firefighters recently convened in New York to reflect on the struggles women in the FDNY have historically faced, as well as to contemplate exactly why women remain such a spare presence in the New York City fire service.

For female firefighters, as for many women in the workforce, the 1964 Civil Rights Act  broadened their professional horizons by codifying the prohibition of sex discrimination with regards to employment. But in 1977 women still faced a reality that lagged behind the legislation. That year, under pressure from the city to comply with the act, the FDNY opened its firefighter application process to women for the first time. Five hundred female applicants passed the written test. But the physical test that followed was significantly the most demanding in FDNY history. Of the 90 women who showed up to take it—many others deterred by headlines that unequivocally predicted their failure—not a single one passed.

One of these applicants, Brenda Berkman, enlisted the help of lawyers Laura Sager and Bob King to bring a class-action lawsuit against the city. They argued that the test was not an accurate indicator of whether or not an applicant could complete the tasks required by the job, and that it furthermore had a disparate impact on women vs. men, rendering the hiring process discriminatory.

As an example they cited one component of the test that involved the applicant lifting a 125-pound bag of sand from the floor, throwing it over the shoulder, and running up and down a flight of stairs with it. None of the women were able to do this to satisfaction. But in actual fire scenes, where rooms are filled with intense heat and smoke, to stand is suicide. Firefighters are trained to crawl in and drag people out, a task that most of the women were able to complete.

In 1982 a federal Judge ruled in favor of the female plaintiffs and ordered that a new test be formulated with input from their lawyers. Though the fire department ignored this, consulting only incumbent male firefighters for the test, 42 women nevertheless passed it and began their careers in the fire department.

These careers, however, were for many years characterized by harassment, undue firings, and negative feedback from coworkers. The female firefighters’ air tanks were bled, depriving them of oxygen. Their boots were filled with urine and excrement. They suffered physical and verbal assaults. They weren’t provided equipment that fit them. Brenda Berkman says that the first decade on the job was “pretty horrible,” but that even the year before she retired in 2006 she still suffered some harassment. Though the women in the FDNY today may not suffer abuse to the degree that they once did, the evidence of how welcome they really are lies in their dwindling numbers.       

Regina Wilson, a member of the FDNY since 1999 and the current president of the United Women Firefighters (UWF), says that this year, 1,952 women applied to be firefighters. They are just now getting their written scores back. They have not yet taken the physical portion of the test, but in years past, this has been the biggest hurdle for women coming onto the job.

Though the reasons that women aren’t passing the exam are complex, Berkman believes that there are some easily identifiable factors. For example, though efforts to recruit women have improved in recent years, there are still untapped communities that the FDNY should be focusing on. Men cross over to the FDNY from careers in the police department, sanitation, corrections, the military. Women in these fields have already experienced a physically demanding job and need to be recruited more vigorously if the numbers are going to change.

A second factor is that women just don’t have the support that they need in training for the test. While there are all-male fraternal organizations made up of working firefighters that function as resources for men of particular demographics hoping to join FDNY, the Emerald Society (Irish Americans), the Columbia Association (Italian-Americans), the Vulcan Society (African-Americans), and the Hispanic Society, the only comparable resource for women is the UWF. Even though the UWF provides some support in physically training these candidates, the 28 women in the association can only do so much. The UWF needs more monetary assistance from the city if it is going to make a difference in preparing female candidates adequately.

Lastly, Berkman acknowledges the role of public disapproval in inhibiting women from joining the force. She says that the general public has a perception that the firefighting job requires superhuman strength, and that even the most feminist among us hesitate when we think about whom we’d want coming through the door to our rescue. The job of a firefighter she insists “requires strength, endurance, courage, determination, and a no-quit mentality.” One would think that by 2012, we might know that women possess those qualities in equal proportion to men.

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