Women in the New York City Fire Department are once again making history. On Friday, four female probationary firefighters will graduate from the FDNY Fire Academy, bringing the number of women firefighters to a total of 49 — a landmark high in the FDNY’s 150-year history.
Sheliz Salcedo, Choeurlyne Doirin, and Aleigha Powder, a former Marine, are all part of the class of 295 firefighters who will be honored at a ceremony at Queens College on November 6. The youngest of the female graduates, Lisa Cusimano, 21, trained alongside two of her brothers who already serve in the department. Salcedo, an electrician, says the challenges were immense but failure was never an option.
“Getting to this point taught me that anything is possible as long as you put heart, mind, body, and soul into it,” Salcedo says. “I hope we can help raise awareness and inspire more women to come up and join.”
For Doirin, a mother of two, the journey to become one of “New York’s Bravest” took more than a decade. She took her first FDNY firefighter exam in 1999, but she credits her two daughters with encouraging her to stay the course.
“I had to sacrifice a lot to get here, but it was worth it for my children to see me going after something I wanted and not letting limitations define me,” says Doirin. When asked how her girls felt about their mother’s graduation, she says, “They’re more excited than me!”
After a hard-fought battle for reform, including a lawsuit to improve the FDNY’s hiring practices, Friday’s graduation will mark slow but steady progress for female firefighters in New York. For the United Women Firefighters, an organization within the FDNY that represents females in the department, even small, gradual steps forward signal movement toward potentially bigger changes. UFW president Sarinya Srisakul says she’s noticed an improvement in the overall environment of the department over her ten-year career.
“When I started, I never ran into women at the firehouse like I do now,” Srisakul says. “In over thirty years, we’ve never been able to reach these numbers before, and I’m really proud of the women in this class.”
Last year saw a small increase of women in the FDNY to 41 — the same number of female firefighters that served in 1982. Later in 2014 three more women joined the department, bringing the total to 44. Females currently make up less than half of 1 percent of the entire 10,500-person department, one of the lowest percentages of any fire department across the country. Cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis have up to thirty times more women in their departments, with the national average of female firefighters at 3.8 percent.
But despite the low numbers, Srisakul says having support from FDNY commissioner Daniel Nigro and Mayor Bill de Blasio plays a part in making the department more accessible to women. Still, even with the recent progress, Srisakul acknowledges there remains work to be done.
“We’re not even close to where we want to get, yet,” she says. “But with each and every class, we’re breaking barriers, changing the face of the fire department, and creating a better work experience for female fighters in the future.”