Ahlam Ahmed is determined to become a New York City firefighter. The petite eighteen-year-old of Yemeni descent stands five feet tall, weighs just 105 pounds, and is well aware of the physical challenges inherent to the job. But she is resolute.
In a dining room at the FDNY Academy on Randalls Island, Ahmed is the only observant Muslim in a group of about 60 women. They range from military veterans and teenage members of the department’s Explorer program to college athletes and hopefuls who have already taken the department’s most recent firefighter exam. They’re all here to participate in the FDNY’s first-ever Women’s History Month Female Outreach Event, created to help inspire more women to join the department.
“I want to see what the FDNY has to offer,” Ahmed says matter-of-factly. She is dressed in jeans and a red sweater. A white scarf artfully conceals her neck, ears, and hair.
Ahmed, a senior at Al-Ihsan Academy in Queens, signed up for the event last year while attending a career fair at Kingsborough Community College. One persistent recruiter at the FDNY booth inspired her. “At first, I was like, ‘I can’t do that,’ ” she says. “I’ve got strict parents and I’m a girl and I’m small.”
But the recruiter wouldn’t have it. “[He] told me, ‘Do it! Do it! Sign up! You never know what’s going to happen,’ ” Ahmed recalls. “I liked that pressure. I appreciated him pressuring me to do this.”
Because of that pressure, Ahmed agreed to join the other FDNY aspirants on this chilly Saturday morning for a series of training exercises, mentoring sessions, and panel discussions about careers for women in the department.
“A lot of other candidates might have family on the job where their family members would bring them to the firehouse,” says Sarinya Srisakul, president of the United Women Firefighters, a sororal group for female firefighters. “That’s how the guys do it. They go as kids. They ride with their dads. They get a little bit excited and they have someone to emulate.”
Not a lot of women have similar experiences. There are more than 10,400 firefighters in the FDNY, and only 44 of them are women. Srisakul counts the event, which her group organized in conjunction with the department, as one of UWF’s successes in addressing the scarcity of female firefighters.
“This way we introduce these young ladies to the firehouse at fire academy,” Srisakul continues. “They get to meet a bunch of lovely women firefighters today and we get to talk to them about our experience. It’s like we’re passing the torch to a younger generation.”
After an opening ceremony that saw Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro commend his department for being recognized by Forbes as the nation’s number one government agency to work for, Srisakul and other female firefighters assisted Ahmed and the rest of the prospects through a series of rigorous firefighting activities.
Split into five groups, the women hosed down a burning car in full firefighting gear. They learned to set up a ladder and force open a door with a hammer and crowbar. Throughout the afternoon they took part in a number of other simulations at various training facilities at the academy. And at the end of the day, the women chatted casually with female firefighters about joining the FDNY and learned about their personal experiences on the job.
“Everything is heavy,” Ahmed pants as she returns from setting up a ladder. She is wearing a vest with 50-pound weights. “This is nothing,” she adds. “They usually wear 150 pounds when they are working.” Nonetheless, she says she also learned from the firefighters that the job has more to do with training and technique than brute strength.
Ahmed says she was concerned when she learned there were no observant Muslim female firefighters in the ranks. She was mostly curious about the uniform and dress code.
“I have to be covered,” she says. “I love wearing the scarf. It’s for protection. When I’m covering my butt and my boobs and my hair I feel protected. I love it.”
“We try to accommodate religious practices,” says Elisheva Zakheim, an FDNY press officer. But the department has never had an observant Muslim woman in its ranks, so the question of how Ahmed might remain appropriately covered while in uniform is a new one. Zakheim says that while the FDNY respects all religious practices, “safety is our first concern, be it male or female” — a man in a long beard or a woman in a burka. “If you can’t wear the equipment, you’re putting your crew in danger. You’re putting New Yorkers in danger. We approach a lot of these questions on a case-by-case basis.”
After hours of training exercises, Ahmed seems convinced of her career path. “Yeah, I still want to be a firefighter,” she says. “It’s an exciting job and I have an interest in saving people’s lives.” That conviction was fortified when she learned how much money firefighters make. The starting salary is $39,370 with full benefits. She is graduating from high school in June, and college is supposed to come next. But she says joining the FDNY has become her top priority and attending college will serve as a backup plan.
“School is not for everybody,” she says. Ahmed seems to have her mind made up, but she’s not the only one who needs convincing. “I just need my parents’ approval,” she adds with a laugh.