Sunday, March 17, 2002


All-male image burns firefighters
Women, especially in New York, seek recognition for contributions

David Crary
Associated Press

Associated Press
Probationary firefighters are sworn in during a ceremony for new recruits on Randall's Island in New York on Oct. 22. More than 92 percent of the city's current firefighters are white men.

NEW YORK -- The question is awkward to ask, but not hard to answer: Why were no women among the 343 firefighters killed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11?

Numbers tell the story. Nationally, roughly 2 percent of professional firefighters are female. In New York City, women account for just 28 of 11,400 firefighters -- less than 0.3 percent.

For Lt. Brenda Berkman, who broke the department's gender barrier in 1982, the past six months have been doubly difficult. She was devastated by the loss of her friends and colleagues, yet dismayed by a sense that women in public-safety jobs were being slighted amid tributes to male bravery.

"What was most hurtful was to be so invisible at the funerals and memorial services," said Berkman, who heads the small, female firefighters union. "The officials giving the eulogies would talk about `firemen,' the `brothers,' the `men.' After 20 years, it was tough to take."

Berkman, who spent Sept. 11 and subsequent weeks worki
ng at Ground Zero, had to sue her way into the fire department. She endured repeated harassment early in her career -- and her trailblazing didn't produce a transformation.

More than 92 percent of New York's current firefighters are white men, and only one woman is among more than 600 recruits hired since Sept. 11. The city's equal employment commission last year chided fire officials for resisting diversification, but suspended efforts to force compliance after the attacks.

New York is one of many cities with a nearly all-male fire department, but some places have broken the pattern. Minneapolis, for example, has 72 women among its 460 firefighters -- almost 16 percent.

The assistant chief in Minneapolis, Ulie Seal, said a key step was developing a physical test that reflected on-the-job demands, not just brute strength. The department offers training to help women prepare for the test and will consider any applicant who passes, not just those with the highest scores.

"I'm hesitant to say you can translate this to Anytown USA, because I don't live in Anytown," Seal said. "But what we've done has worked very well for us here."

The president of the local firefighters union, Tom Thornberg, agreed.

"There have been growing pains, but it certainly has been working out," he said. "Any city could do this if they really wanted to."

New York's physical exams -- its tasks include raising a 20-foot ladder and pulling a heavy hose -- are among the toughest anywhere, with many men as well as women failing to meet the time limits. But Berkman says more women could pass if the city intensified recruiting, then supported female applicants with mentoring and training.

Since the attacks, New York has a new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and new faces overseeing the fire department. Veteran public servant Douglas White has been appointed deputy fire commissioner with the expectation he will push for diversity.

"We're deeply committed to getting more qualified women and minorities," said White, who is black. "All the women will have the opportunity to enter a rigorous training program to help them get ready to take the test."

There are now about 5,600 professional female firefighters nationwide, up from zero in 1973, according to Women in the Fire Service. The Wisconsin-based group's director, Terese Floren, shares Berkman's frustration over post-Sept. 11 commentaries.

"There were all sorts of stories of how men did this, men did that, how all the firefighters killed were men," she said. "Somehow that's being used to prove there shouldn't be women firefighters. But if this happened almost anywhere else, there might have been 20 or 30 women firefighters killed."

In contrast to the city's firefighters, 15.3 percent of New York's police officers last year were women. Three women in uniform -- a city police officer, a Port Authority police officer and an emergency medical technician -- died in the terrorist attacks.

Only a handful of urban fire departments have female chiefs -- among them is Eileen Lewis, who became the first female firefighter in Tacoma, in 1981, and was named chief two years ago. Of her department's 425 firefighters, 36 are women.

She recalled the chilly reception when she entered the profession.

"It seemed overwhelming, the negativism, the establishment not wanting you there," she said. "Some of the men in your group felt for you, but they didn't want to be in the group, because the officers worked you harder."

Seeking to expand the ranks of female firefighters, the main firefighters union has developed a new test, similar to the one in Minneapolis, that will be offered to departments nationwide.

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