On this freezing Sunday morning in January, the New York Sports Club is the last place anyone would want to be. Outside, an icy wind whips through the deserted, snow-clotted Financial District. The gym is mostly empty, an expanse of abandoned elliptical machines, dotted with one or two diehards working at half-speed. All of them are politely trying not to stare at the main event transpiring at the center of the room: five women being run at top speed through a brutal workout by two people who won’t stop yelling.
“Are you kidding me, ladies?” shouts Sarinya Srisakul. “You can’t stop!”
Srisakul, in her thirties, has black hair, a cheery pink workout top, and a forbidding expression. A nine-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department, she has just come off a 24-hour shift. She and the rest of her engine spent all night pumping out a basement flooded with eight feet of water. She hasn’t slept in over 30 hours. Her voice is hoarse, and getting hoarser by the minute as she hollers threats and encouragement at the five women running on the treadmills in front of her.
“Do not hold on!” she shouts at one, who quickly lets go of the treadmill bar and picks up the pace. And to another: “Are you fricking kidding me? You’re walking to the end? Let’s go!”
Slideshow: Women Prepare for the FDNY Entrance Exam
These women want to join the tiny sisterhood Srisakul is part of: the women of the FDNY, who make up less than one-half of 1 percent of the department’s active-duty firefighters. There are 37 female firefighters in the department, alongside some 10,500 men. No two women work in the same firehouse. The most women who ever served in the department at one time is 41.
That was 30 years ago.
The obstacles for any woman — or man — hoping to join the fire service in this city are exceedingly high. Applicants to the FDNY’s Fire Academy on Randall’s Island must pass a written exam and the standardized Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), and they must also run a mile and a half in under 13 minutes. Once they make it into the academy, they’ll be known as “probies,” or probationary fighters, a designation they keep for 18 months. To graduate, they have to make it through another battery of physical tests, including some that Srisakul argues blatantly discriminate against women.
But right now she’s focused on getting these five women past their first hurdles and into the academy. She’s joined by Thompson Plyler, a ludicrously fit, relentlessly cheerful former Marine turned physical trainer who shouts things like, “Feels great, doesn’t it?” when it clearly does not.
As soon as the women finish their run, Plyler allows them a minute to cool down. Then the real workout begins: rapid-fire pushups and sit-ups, followed by circuit training, which the women do while wearing 50-pound weight vests to help simulate the 75 to 100 pounds of gear a firefighter wears on the job.
“Down, down, down!” Plyler shouts, as the women go into their pushups. “Why are you in disarray?”
“You should be able to do this!” Srisakul adds.
Almost every drill focuses on building upper-body strength, an attribute the FDNY’s testing emphasizes. In one exercise, the “sled tow,” Srisakul and Plyler pile 135 pounds of weight onto a platform, then attach a rope. The women have to drag the weight 20 feet across the floor, then push it back at top speed. They do deep lunges with 50-pound sacks slung across their backs. They hoist a barbell in the air, and do as many pull-ups as they can.
Meanwhile, a latecomer is ordered to hustle up and down the stairs as fast as she can, wearing her weight vest and holding two 25-pound kettlebells. She keeps slowing down. Srisakul is not having it.
“You keep going until we tell you to stop,” she says flatly. “You came late. That’s what you get.” Nearby, the woman doing pull-ups cries out in pain around her fifth one. Most of the women get through a few pull-ups; one can’t complete any.
“They’re at different levels, as you can see,” Plyler says. In a normal training session, he explains, he’d take it slow, working with what a particular individual could handle. But since the test doesn’t change and everyone will have to lift the same weight, “the best we can do here is make sure they’re doing it safely.”
The workout continues for two relentless hours, until finally Plyler and Srisakul bring everyone back to the center of the room.
“How’d that feel?” Plyler asks merrily. The women give him tired thumbs-up.
“If you’re falling behind, you have to put in extra effort during the week,” he says, turning serious. During a real fire, he says, “If you’re falling behind, you’re a liability.”
“Wherever you go, you will be the only girl,” Srisakul adds. “Everyone will be looking at you to fail. You know that.” The women all nod and file out silently. They’ll be back two days later for another round.
How many women are in the NFL?” Paul Mannix asks. He’s a pale guy, 50 years old, with faded freckles and rusty reddish-brown hair. On a recent morning, he’s wearing a bright blue turtleneck and pounding on a sheaf of notes for emphasis. “Women in general cannot compete with men in physical competition. We’ll recognize that in something as trivial as sports, but they want us to ignore it for something as important as firefighting.” He snorts in irritation.
Mannix is a deputy chief with the FDNY’s Division 6 in the Bronx, a high-ranking position just below the commander who oversees the borough. He’s also president of Merit Matters, a group of firefighters “dedicated to preserving merit in the FDNY testing, hiring, and promotion process.” That means, in practice, that they’ve vociferously opposed anything that looks like special treatment for women or people of color.
Mannix is unapologetic in his view that not a lot of women are firefighters because not a lot of them are capable of being firefighters. (He speaks frequently to reporters; he’s always careful to point out that he’s speaking for Merit Matters, not on behalf of the FDNY as an institution. He is in fact not fond of the FDNY brass and has filed several discrimination complaints against them.)
“This is my life,” Mannix says, gesturing at his stack of papers. “I don’t play golf.” He keeps files on news stories about female firefighters, as well as a lot of material on women’s inferior physical strength.
But he’s in no way prejudiced or sexist, he explains. “My wife and sister are retired cops,” he says. “We have many female firefighters in the FDNY who support our goals. It’s not a gender thing. It’s not a color thing. It’s not a race thing. It’s really a common-sense thing. Why aren’t there more women in Major League Baseball? Pro sports is a complete meritocracy: If you can help the team win, you’re going to be hired. Women cannot compete.”
He reaches for another sports metaphor. “Boxing, you have weight classes. Why don’t 147-pound women fight 147-pound men? Because they’d be killed in the ring. I have studies regarding upper- and lower-body strength, percentages. Only 2 percent of women can reach the male average physically. And the FDNY doesn’t hire the average male.”
Mannix adds that he has never worked with any women, but “I’ve seen them peripherally at jobs.” As a deputy chief, he’s the incident commander for fires in his area. “I’ve had female officers reporting in to me, under my supervision.”
The dearth of women isn’t unique to the FDNY. In 2008, a report the Ford Foundation produced for the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services found that out of 291 major metropolitan areas in the United States, more than half had no women in their fire departments. In all, women represented just 3.7 percent of the nation’s firefighters at the time.
The authors argued it should be more like 17 percent, similar to what’s found in other fields “requiring strength, stamina, and dexterity, or involving outdoor, dirty, or dangerous work” — jobs like the military, trash collection, drywall installation, and welding. (It’s no mystery why anyone might choose firefighting over those jobs; it’s exciting, heroic, and pays very well. The FDNY’s starting salary is $43,000, climbing to nearly $100,000 after five years. Firefighters have flexible schedules and top-notch benefits, including four weeks’ annual vacation and a generous pension.)
Some departments have reached or approached the 17 percent benchmark: Minneapolis; San Francisco; Boulder, Colorado; Madison, Wisconsin.
New York has never come close.
Sarinya Srisakul is one of those female firefighters whom Mannix has never worked with. She’s also president of United Women Firefighters, a fraternal organization for the FDNY’s women firefighters and officers. The training she runs at the New York Sports Club isn’t funded by the FDNY or anyone else; it’s the UWF’s labor of love.
“In the ’80s, the fire department was forced to hire women kicking and screaming, because of a court order. They didn’t want women on the job then or now,” she says. Where Mannix sees a department rife with preferential treatment, Srisakul sees a fire service bent on keeping women out. The UWF cites a toxic stew of factors, from discriminatory testing practices to lackluster recruitment to a Stone Age approach to gender relations in some firehouses.
The group has backing from several legal-advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and women’s legal-aid society Legal Momentum. Michelle Caiola, a senior staff attorney at the latter, calls the FDNY’s percentage of female firefighters “abysmal.”
“Women never make up the majority of firefighters, but if you look at other major cities, especially those that have made an effort, the numbers are much higher,” Caiola says. “Our numbers are so low.”
The main bone of contention is testing. The UWF is fine with the written exam and the CPAT, a standardized physical test used by more than 500 fire departments nationwide. (The FDNY has used the CPAT since 2006. The department retooled the written test the following year, after the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of black firefighters, won a lawsuit alleging the prior version discriminated against minority applicants.)
The CPAT involves eight tasks: climbing stairs while wearing 75 pounds of weight, dragging a hose, carrying equipment, extending a ladder or a rope, “forcible entry” (breaking down a locked door or a wall with a sledgehammer), search (crawling through a 64-foot tunnel maze), rescue (dragging a 165-pound dummy), and a “ceiling breach” that simulates tearing open a ceiling with a pointed pole.
The UWF doesn’t particularly object to the 13-minute run, nor to the 12-minute version required for graduation — although they do point out that running is hardly a job-related skill for a firefighter. (“I’ve never in the nine years I’ve been a firefighter had to run a mile and a half without stopping,” Srisakul says. “If we run anywhere, it’s running a quarter of a block, to a building on fire.”)
They strongly object, however, to the Functional Skills Training test.
FST is the FDNY’s own invention, a more intense version of the CPAT, often likened to an obstacle course. In the Fire Academy, probies do it about once a week. It includes some of the same elements as the CPAT: tasks like climbing stairs while carrying tools and equipment, dragging hoses, and raising ladders, as well as forcible-entry and search-and-rescue exercises.
But it’s performed at a dead run — something that will get you disqualified from the CPAT — and involves lifting a lot more weight, while wearing full gear and a self-contained breathing apparatus, like the kind you’d use during an actual fire. According to the FDNY’s own materials about its fitness standards, “FST requires an extremely high level of physical conditioning, well beyond what is necessary to pass CPAT.”
No one disputes that it’s great training. “It gets you in really good shape,” Srisakul says. But in 2008 — in the wake of the Vulcan Society lawsuit, at a time when a record number of women were applying to the department — it became a mandatory graduation requirement. To pass, probies must complete the FST course within a time determined on the basis of the prior graduating class’s median time.
“It’s job-specific,” Srisakul admits. “It’s a lot of the things we do in the field. But we don’t do these things in succession, and we don’t do them timed. That’s the difference. At a working fire, we might do one or two of the elements of FST, but not all of them back-to-back.”
And, she contends, “It’s generally harder for people who are smaller. The bigger you are, the easier it is for you.”
Making it a pass/fail graduation requirement, Srisakul says, effectively weeds out more women.
Both Merit Matters and the Uniformed Firefighters Association (the union that represents the city’s firefighters) have argued that the CPAT is too easy and that FST is a better litmus test for the kind of physical fitness New York firefighters need. “CPAT is a minimum standard,” UFA president Stephen Cassidy told the Chief-Leader, a newspaper that covers the FDNY and the NYPD, in December. “Minimum standards are unacceptable to be a New York City firefighter.”
The testing is never repeated after probies graduate from Randall’s Island. Once a year, during their physicals, incumbent firefighters have to climb a stair mill while wearing a weighted vest, but they are never again required to perform any element of the CPAT or FST.
“They have to do it once in their careers, and that’s it,” Srisakul says.
The American Civil Liberties Union openly questions the legality of the FST test. “The law says is that it’s fine for an employer to administer a physical test” to an applicant, explains Mie Lewis, an ACLU attorney who heads up their Women’s Rights Project. “But that test actually has to test for whether candidates can perform the job. And the law requires a pretty rigorous showing that what is being tested is a matter of business necessity.” The FST and the running test, Lewis argues, add requirements the FDNY hasn’t proven are necessary. “What you’re effectively administering is an advanced physical test that goes beyond anything that’s been validated.”
The public perception is that all firefighters are male, white, with handlebar mustaches, 6-foot-3 at least, and leap burning buildings in a single bound,” Brenda Berkman says between bites of a greasy bacon-and-cheese sandwich at midtown’s Astro Diner. “Basically, the stereotype is an individualized superman. But the reality of firefighting is that it’s performed in pitch-black, high-heat environments where you’re forced to crawl and drag things, not lift them up onto your shoulders and run around with them. It’s performed as teams. That’s a huge portion of what firefighters do. It’s not just, as we say, putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.”
These days Berkman is an artist working on a series about 9-11, and a volunteer at her church, taking meals to the elderly. But for 25 years, before she retired in 2006, she was a firefighter, one of the first women in the FDNY and one of the very first to become a captain.
She’s also the reason there are women in the department at all. In February 1978, as a young law student, Berkman showed up along with 90 other women to take Exam 3040, the test required to enter the Fire Academy. It was the first year women were allowed to apply — and the same year the exam was changed, making it what one FDNY administrator called “the hardest test we’ve ever administered.”
All 90 women failed.
Berkman was the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the FDNY and the city, alleging that the test had deliberately discriminated against women and wasn’t job-related.
She won. In 1982, U.S. District Judge Charles P. Sifton ruled that “the physical portion of Exam 3040 discriminated against plaintiff and the class she represents on the basis of their sex.” The city was directed to come up with a new, nondiscriminatory test, and to reserve 45 positions in the new Fire Academy class for women who were still interested in the job.
In 1983, after they graduated and began working as firefighters, Berkman and fellow plaintiff Zaida Gonzalez sued again, after they both were fired at the end of their probationary period. They alleged that their terminations were retaliatory. Sifton agreed, noting that the two women had received only three “deficiency slips” apiece in six weeks — “far fewer” than most of their fellow probies — and that both women had received positive evaluations during their time in the field. Neither plaintiff, he added, “was given a fair opportunity to demonstrate her ability to become a firefighter.”
Testimony during the lawsuit revealed that the FDNY had prepared the firehouse for women by putting locks on the doors of the bathrooms they were assigned and “privacy screens” around their bunks. (Berkman says the flimsy locks were rarely enough to keep the men out of bathrooms they saw as rightfully theirs. Sometimes they’d simply take the door off its hinges, “or they trashed the bathroom in a disgusting way.”)
“Beyond these minimal efforts,” Sifton wrote, “the Department did little more than issue an ambiguous oral directive that the women be treated no differently than the men — a directive which so far from stemming discrimination in fact acted affirmatively to encourage it.” He also found that although several fellow firefighters testified that the women were unable to operate tools like power saws, hoses, and bolt cutters, they were in fact able to use the equipment when properly trained.
Gonzalez and Berkman were reinstated with back pay.
Berkman sees disturbing similarities between 1978 and today: discriminatory physical requirements, insufficient facilities for women in firehouses, and a general unwillingness to diverge from the status quo.
“People have no incentive to change,” she says. “We got computers. We got bunker gear. We use our breathing apparatus now, sort of. But the overall mentality is, ‘Why can’t we have horses draw our fire trucks?'”
FDNY brass disagree that they’re not doing enough to recruit women. “We have invested heavily in recruiting members of color and females,” Chief Edward Kilduff told City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley during a recent hearing convened by the council’s Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services. Accompanying Kilduff to the hearing were the department’s chief medical officer, an associate commissioner, and Michele Maglione, the “diversity commissioner” in charge of making the department a more welcoming place for women and minorities.
Neither Maglione nor the FDNY’s press office responded to five interview requests from the Voice.
As a measure of the department’s success, Kilduff pointed to the number of women who have recently sought to enter the academy. In 2011, he said, 4,200 women applied to take the 2012 exam, more than for the three previous tests combined. Nearly half of the applicants — 1,952 women — followed through and took the test, alongside about 40,000 men. That pool has yielded nine women who have graduated from the academy.
Kilduff also reported that a survey of probies indicates that all students were “comfortable” with the environment at the academy. “So far, everything we’ve gotten back from those anonymous surveys has been positive,” he said.
A drop from 1,952 test-takers to nine graduates, however, is precipitous, especially when contrasted with the numbers for men: In the current crop of new firefighters, the graduation rate among men is more than two and a half times that of women. (More than 500 of the men who took the 2012 test have graduated from the academy.)
Srisakul says the women who do make it into the academy are subjected to harsh scrutiny in an environment in which instructors and classmates alike expect — and sometimes root for — them to fail.
Last year, she says, she went to bat for Wendy Tapia, a probie who’d failed five times to run the mile and a half in 12 minutes. Srisakul says she emailed “the top five people in the fire department,” explaining that Tapia had been injured during training. She was allowed to graduate with her class and was given another chance at the timed run. But before Tapia could make her sixth attempt, the New York Post ran a story labeling her “the Teflon probie” and “seemingly unfireable.” The article included the times of her prior attempts, obtained from FDNY “insiders.”
Srisakul says the email she’d sent the top brass had been the extent of her lobbying. “Even the [UWF] members didn’t know about that,” she says. “So how did the Post know?”
According to Srisakul, the probie was shaken by the tabloid coverage and insisted on making her sixth attempt before she’d fully recovered, for fear the Post would get wind of her run date and send a reporter and a photographer. “It was the day she got back from medical leave,” Srisakul recounts. “She wasn’t ready. She failed.” Tapia resigned, returning to FDNY Emergency Medical Services, where she’d worked before entering the academy.
Srisakul calls the Post‘s coverage a smear campaign that originated within the department and adds, “In effect, those articles helped her fail. The perpetrators behind all this got what they asked for.” (Srisakul declined to make Tapia available to the Voice for comment.)
Paul Mannix sees the story differently. “Maybe that means she can’t handle the rigors of the job,” he says. “That’s a damning indictment, I believe, of Tapia.”
Controversial media coverage aside, Elizabeth Crowley, who chairs the City Council’s fire committee, says the high dropout rate must be addressed. She wants to reinstate funding for a physical-fitness training program for female FDNY applicants that John Jay College of Criminal Justice hosted until 2007, when the women were forced to start training in parks. (They moved to the Sports Club this year at the invitation of the facility’s marketing department.)
Crowley wants to explore upping the maximum age for applicants; right now, recruits must be under 29 when they take the Fire Academy tests. And if physical fitness is such a big concern, she adds, she’d like to see firefighters retested each year. “Returning firefighters should be held to some level of fitness, for their own safety and for the safety of their fellow firefighters and for the city as a whole,” Crowley argues.
The FDNY doesn’t seem eager to change. When Kilduff was asked about the Tapia incident during the hearing, the chief responded, “We expect our firefighters to be aerobically fit and ready for fire duty on day one when they walk into the firehouse. Based on the history of firefighters who have been killed in the line of duty or have passed away because of cardiac incidents, we feel that’s a significant benchmark for us.”
Nor did the department have much to say in response to the UWF’s testimony about current conditions.
That’s because they didn’t hear most of it. Midway through the proceedings, Kilduff and his fellow FDNY officials got up and left.
I love my job,” says Kinga Kusek. She and her sister Daiana are both FDNY firefighters. “It suits my life. The same reason why guys want this job, women want this job. Anyone who’s a firefighter loves to go to fires. They love the excitement and the adrenaline.” When she first got on the force years ago, some of her coworkers’ wives had some other concerns, which she found ridiculous. “I don’t want your husband,” she says. “I don’t need your husband.”
“I’m happy I’m able to serve my community,” says Regina Wilson, a 15-year veteran, past president of the UWF, and vice president of the Vulcan Society. “I love my job. I love the work. I love the physicality of it, the opportunity to think on my feet. But the rest of this mess, they can keep it. I want to work, go on vacation, support myself, have a nice place to live, enjoy life. I don’t wanna be hazed or made to feel insignificant or made to feel like I don’t matter or I don’t count because I’m black or female.”
Most female firefighters say their worst experiences happened in the academy, although they acknowledge that some level of hazing is common for any probie, male or female: teasing, being forced to clean bathrooms, unflattering nicknames, trash talk. (Two firefighters interviewed for this story tell the Voice racial slurs and homophobic language are commonplace but that they had been subjected to neither.)
The chief irritant is the changing rooms. During the City Council hearing, Kilduff testified that almost 80 percent of the city’s 221 firehouses have bathroom and changing facilities for women. But UWF members point out he’s working from an older list, and that as soon as a woman leaves a firehouse, women’s areas have a propensity to metamorphose into other things.
All firehouses should contain facilities for women: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act guarantees that. The FDNY says it’s just taking a while to put them in.
“When I moved houses, the guys told me, ‘As soon as you’re gone, this is gonna be a steam room!'” says Regina Wilson. “We’ve been here 30 years, and we still don’t have all our bathrooms done.” A probie was recently “bounced around” to three different houses, Wilson says, because there was no women’s bathroom in the first two places she was assigned. And in the department’s hothouse of a rumor mill, the veteran adds, “Now that she has a bathroom, she’s labeled as a prima donna.”
“The minute one woman leaves a firehouse, the woman’s bathroom gets repurposed,” Berkman says. “How can you not have privacy in your shower and bathroom and changing facilities? What kind of message are you sending to women who are thinking about joining the fire department?”
Another veteran female firefighter, who asked not to be quoted by name for fear of reprisal from coworkers, says the bathrooms have been an issue throughout her career. “It’s like the simplest, basic thing, and it’s still not accomplished.”
For her, though, a larger issue is the porn. The men don’t watch it while she’s around, but as soon as they think she’s asleep, she says, it starts up on the kitchen TV. “They give me the courtesy, but maybe someone else doesn’t wanna see that,” she says. “It’s just not appropriate. They forget it’s a job, they’re professionals, they’re on the clock.” (Several UWF members interviewed for this story said they’d encountered pornography, though not to the degree specified by this woman.)
Then there is Merit Matters’ constant effort to let the women know where they stand. About two years ago, for six or seven months, according to several women the Voice interviewed, Mannix used the interdepartmental fax machine to send missives about the unfairness of “special treatment” for women and people of color to all the firehouses, where firefighters often posted them alongside official bulletins.
Regina Wilson was president of the UWF then; she says she had to complain to headquarters for months before Mannix was told to stop using the department fax machines. “They said they had to make sure they weren’t violating his First Amendment rights,” she says.
With few exceptions, the women don’t file complaints with their superiors or the department’s Equal Employment Opportunities office. Berkman and Srisakul both say women who want to keep their jobs are wary of doing anything that might read as “prima donna” behavior to the men they work with. During the council hearing, Tracey Lewis, who has 14 years on the job, testified that beginning in 2003, during a temporary assignment to a firehouse in Canarsie, she was harassed after she declined to eat pork or beef during house meals. Her gear was “misplaced,” someone put eggs in her boots, and she received harassing phone calls at the firehouse.
Lewis filed complaints with the Brooklyn borough commander and the EEO office, but “nothing changed,” she said. “I went to work as scheduled. The harassment continued, and of course no one is ever held accountable for anything.” After five years, Lewis was reassigned to another firehouse. This past December, she learned, another woman was assigned to the firehouse she’d finally escaped.
“I would think placing another female in this very firehouse is appalling to say the least,” she told the committee. “How am I to think the situation will be different for her?”
Tish James, the city’s new public advocate, attended the hearing and expressed disbelief when she learned that not all firehouses are equipped with women’s facilities. “My office will be meeting with female firefighters to learn more about the environment within the department,” James tells the Voice. “Reports of harassment and unfair testing concern me, as do stations that are not properly equipped for female firefighters. I will be looking further into these issues as we move forward.”
Although New York is still struggling with the concept, women have been fighting fires for a long time. During the London Blitz, women fought the flames alongside men. In the late 1920s, at the age of 50, Emma Vernell joined a New Jersey fire department after her husband died in the line of duty. In 1936, Anne Crawford, a Rhode Island forest fire warden, flew to New York in her private plane to recruit women to fight fires.
But those baby steps in gender equality stopped after World War II. By 1973, New Jersey had backslid so far that a New York Times article reported that the idea of a woman joining the West Orange Fire Department and sleeping in the firehouse “is said to have boggled the minds of some firemen there.” The town’s fire director added, “You could say that overnight she became the most popular member of the department.”
In 1974, faced with the prospect that their husbands would be working (and sleeping) alongside 35 women, a group of San Diegans formed the Concerned Wives of Firemen and threatened to go to court to block the decision that allowed them into the ranks.
New York was no different. For the first 330 years of its history, since organized firefighting in the city began, no woman could be a firefighter, no matter how many pull-ups she could do. Then again, neither could most men. In 1887, in order to join the department, a man had to be at least 21 years old and “of good moral character.” An applicant couldn’t be shorter than 5-foot-7. In 1910, the minimum height went up an inch. A 6-foot-tall man could weigh no less than 165 pounds and have a chest of no less than 36 inches in circumference. He had to disclose whether he was subject to “fits or piles,” have “a fair knowledge of the three R’s” and be willing to serve a 15-day probationary period without pay.
The height requirement was eliminated in the mid ’60s. But height and weight requirements re-emerged as soon as women were allowed to apply, both in the FDNY and other departments nationwide.
“When it became a legal requirement that public-safety professions be open to women candidates, you saw the adoption of these minimum height and weight requirements as a proxy,” says Mie Lewis of the ACLU. “And when that was struck down by the court, these physical tests began to be adopted.”
The UWF, the ACLU, and Legal Momentum allege that the physical testing is still being used that way. Even as the department makes a show of recruiting women, they say, the physical tests change on a whim.
Paul Mannix disagrees, saying the testing is a basic aspect of proving you can handle the rigors. “The bigger and the stronger you are, the easier is it for you to do our job,” he says.” The easier it is, the better you do it and the better for the people.”
Brenda Berkman calls that logic “such crap.”
“If in fact the only thing the fire department was interested in was who was strongest and biggest, they’d be getting rid of incumbents,” she argues. “There’d be no point in having people who were getting older and losing their physical fitness. But that’s typical Paul Mannix: preying on the fears of the public that the person showing up at their burning house won’t be able to help them. That’s belied by the experiences of women performing the duties of firefighting for 40 years in paid departments all over the world, and doing fine.”
It might seem the department is at a standstill. Soon, though, the FDNY will have to make some changes, when Mayor Bill de Blasio nominates his pick for fire commissioner, a replacement for Bloomberg man Sal Cassano. Three of the five reported nominees are women. One is Brenda Berkman.
On Facebook, the reaction to Berkman’s potential shot at the job was not positive, especially among Merit Matters members. After a battalion chief named Ron Kemly shared a link from the Daily News, one lieutenant commented, “What a fuckin’ joke.” And another: “Game over, brothers.” The Facebook conversations would appear to flout an FDNY policy discouraging firefighters from disclosing their profession on social media. Many firefighters pose in uniform, list the FDNY as their employer, and engage in heated political discussions in public posts.
The bottom line, Mannix says, is that the department does not need to change. “The FDNY has bent over backwards to accommodate minorities and women,” he says. “I’m sure there was racism and sexism in the past. But we’re talking about in the past. We’ve bent over backwards, and now we’re twisting ourselves into pretzels. We have nothing to apologize for.”
“This is life or death we’re talking about,” he adds in a later interview. “We’re not having a debate about gender equality here, sitting around in the faculty lounge.”
Srisakul begs to differ. “Our opponents think we’re being treated with a double standard,” she testified during the recent City Council hearing. “If that were the case, there would be more than 37 women on the job.”
Given the involvement of the ACLU and Legal Momentum, it looks inevitable that the women of the FDNY will file a lawsuit similar to the Vulcan Society’s. Srisakul won’t comment directly on that possibility. But finally, after a long moment of silence, she offers this: “It’s either that or the fire department has to make a commitment to increase the number of women. But, like I said, they don’t see the problem. They think what they’re doing is fine.”
Berkman, despite everything, is more optimistic.
“No,” she says, asked if a protracted lawsuit is inevitable. She seems to mean it. “The new mayor has a perfect opportunity to move the department forward in a variety of ways.”
No one wants to spend years mired in court, she adds. “Women don’t come on the job to become the named class plaintiff in a lawsuit. They just don’t wanna do that. People just want to have a good tour.”
She goes silent for a moment. “The most important thing I wanted to do was make it possible for people to go home safe,” she says finally. “Do their jobs and be safe themselves. That’s why I was an officer. That was my responsibility.” Her eyes well up. For a moment, she can’t speak. Soon enough, though, she puts on her coat and prepares to head back out into the cold.
“You don’t have to put in there that I got all emotional about this,” she says gruffly, and then she’s gone.