History was made in the Fire Department of New York on Tuesday after four female firefighters graduated from the FDNY Fire Academy, raising to 44 the number of women in a department of more than 10,500 members — the most ever in the FDNY’s 149-year history.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro addressed a graduating class of 280 at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn on November 18. The fire academy graduates two classes each year, and since it resumed hiring in 2013 after a long hiatus owing to a lawsuit, the FDNY has consistently graduated four women from each class. Although their numbers are growing, members of the United Women Firefighters, a fraternal group of female firefighters, acknowledge in a statement that “change is slow.”
Women make up 0.4 percent of the FDNY, one of the lowest proportions of any fire service in the country. UWF president Sarinya Srisakul says she is excited about reaching Tuesday’s milestone, but adds that “it will take a couple hundred more women hired for NYC to even be at the national average.”
Srisakul says more needs to be done to challenge stereotypes in a male-dominated profession. At the moment the group is working hard to recruit more women. UWF currently runs a rigorous training program at the New York Sports Club to get women ready for the fire academy. The women work out while wearing 50-pound weight vests and do exercises like dragging 135 pounds of weight 20 feet across the floor while being yelled at by an ex-Marine. This is all done to groom female FDNY prospects for the real thing.
“The fire department is paramilitary,” Srisakul explains. “We try to re-create that environment in our training.”
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One of the female graduates who benefited from UWF’s training is Josephine Smith, who is
also making history as the first daughter of an FDNY member killed on 9-11 to become a firefighter herself. Smith has wanted to be a firefighter for as long as she can remember and recalls going to work with her dad, Kevin Smith, as a kid. I want to “make him proud,” she told reporters tearfully after the ceremony.
The petite 34-year-old admitted that being a woman in what is widely perceived as a man’s world is demanding. “It’s hard to keep up with guys that are twice your size.”
Male or female, prospective NYC firefighters must clear some extremely high hurdles. Applicants have to pass a series of tests — physical and mental. Srisakul contends some of the tests discriminate against women, particularly the FDNY’s special Functional Skills Training test that probationary firefighters have to complete once every week during their 18 weeks at the fire academy.
“Oh, my gosh! It was difficult!” another female graduate, Annette Astaiza, exclaims, with a note of relief. Being one of the few women at the academy was “intimidating” at first, she says, but eventually, and with the support of members of the UWF, the mother of four conquered her doubts.
“Each of the women who made it to this rank has worked extremely hard to battle the barriers and age-old stereotypes that women do not belong in the FDNY,” Srisakul says in a statement from the UWF. “We are each shining examples that yes, we can do it and yes, we belong here.”
Female firefighters were first hired in New York City in 1982, when the first class of 41 women was hired via a court mandate. In the past 32 years, the FDNY has been unable to hire many women, including a period of 10 years during which none joined the department.
Critics often wonder what bearing the gender of firefighters has on their ability to do quality work. Srisakul’s response is that increasing the number of female firefighters helps other women on the force.
“We are such a marginalized group that it is easy to feel harassed, marginalized, and alienated,” she tells the Voice. “It also serves as a model for young girls and women who want to pursue this non-traditional and heroic position.”
The perks of the job are considerable, too. “Civil-service jobs and blue-collar jobs lift working people to the middle class because it’s a great job with great benefits,” Srisakul adds.
City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, chair of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services, has set a hearing on December 4 that will discuss, among other things, FST validation and physical fitness requirements in the FDNY. Srisakul sees this as one of many crucial steps in realizing her vision. “I look forward to the day when 44 is in the distant past and NYC can be like the rest of the cities in our country.”