United Women Firefighters Say “Backhanded Hazing” and Unfair Testing Is Keeping Women from the FDNY


The New York City Fire Department is once again facing scrutiny over its low, low numbers of female firefighters. Those numbers could hardly be much worse: there are about 11,000 firefighters in the FDNY today, and just 37 of them are women, less than one half of one percent. The FDNY leadership says they’re doing everything they can to recruit more women. But an organization of female firefighters, along with American Civil Liberties Union, say the FDNY is still promoting unfair testing practices designed to keep women out, and that hazing and harassment of female firefighters is still common.

Brenda Berkman thinks this whole situation looks unpleasantly familiar. Berkman sued the FDNY for gender discrimination FDNY in the 1970s, leading to the department being ordered to hire women. At a hearing on Friday, December 13, she accused the FDNY of “repeating many of the same mistakes that led to its terrible record in the recruitment and hiring of women firefighters.”

Berkman’s testimony came during a hearing held by the City Council’s Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, where the city council members heard from FDNY Department Chief Edward Kilduff, as well as two other senior FDNY officials, the department’s chief medical officer and the official in charge of diversity recruitment. They also heard testimony from members of the United Women Firefighters Association (UWF). The pictures the two groups painted of the department were starkly different.

The FDNY has been forced to make a lot of changes lately; a successful 2009 lawsuit from the Justice Department and the Vulcan Society, an organization of black firefighters, resulted in a federal judge ordering the overwhelmingly white department to create a new entrance exam and appoint a court monitor to make sure their hiring and recruiment practices didn’t discriminate against people of color. This year, 62 percent of the graduating class are people of color, the highest ever.

It sounds like not everyone is expected to take the change gracefully: when many newly-minted “probies” (probationary officers) of color enter their firehouses for the first time, the New York Times reports that commanders are being sent to watch over the process and make sure they aren’t harassed. The federal judge who presided over the case, Nicholas Garaufis, has also had police protection at his house.

But despite a 2006 probe by the Justice Department over the FDNY’s hiring of women, the number of female firefighters has barely budged. Chief Kilduff pointed out, though, that in 2011, 4,200 women applied to take the 2012 written exam to become a firefighter, more than the three previous tests in 1999, 2002, and 2007.

“Twelve women have graduated in the last three classes,” Kilduff added. “Not since the first woman joined the department, in more than 30 years, have we seen that many women come on the job.” He said, too, that recruitment “is only one part of the overall effort we make to get women to come on the job and have long careers in the FDNY.”

But Brenda Berkman disagrees, as does Sarinya Srisakul, the current president of the UWF. Both of them, along with City Council member Elizabeth Crowley, who heads the Fire and Criminal Justice committee, were especially concerned with a recent series of New York Post articles about a probie named Wendy Tapia, who the paper dubbed “unfireable.” The stories said that Tapia had failed to complete a key requirement to graduate from the Fire Academy, running a mile and a half in under twelve minutes. Tapia tried six times to make that time, falling short by 20 seconds.

Srisakul was concerned with how the Post gained access to Tapia’s name and test scores, and the way they selectively used that information, along with anonymous quotes from “management sources” inside the Fire Academy, to discredit her.

“A few anonymous firefighters leaked the private information of this woman and her medical information,” Srisakul told the committee. “These are criminal activities… The smear campaign went viral in the department, and made both the local and national news.” The result, she said, was “significant damage to her reputation and psyche. It also successfully generated the message that women are not welcome in the department.” The incident, Srisakul said, is an example of the “backhanded hazing” women face on the job.

Another current firefighter, Tracey Lewis, who usually works in Bed-Stuy, shared several disturbing stories from her temporary assignment to a firehouse in Canarsie, where her fellow firefighters routinely “misplaced” her gear and threw eggs into her boots. She also received what she described as “harassing, threatening” phone calls at work.

Although Lewis reported the incidents to management, she says. “Nothing changed. I went to work as scheduled. The harassment continued. And of course, no one is ever held accountable for anything.”

The UWF also disagrees with a test called the FST (Functional Strength Training), another requirement to graduate the Fire Academy. The main testing requirement, the Candidate Physical Ability Test, or CPAT, they don’t take issue with; it’s a standardized national test, one which Kilduff testified that women pass about 75% of the time, versus 90% for men. But the FST, Srisakul argued, is the “biggest barrier” to women becoming firefighters. It’s essentially an obstacle course, which the trainees have to complete in a set amount of time; they’re graded against the median score of the previous class. The FST has been a requirement since 2008, and a large, pass-fail part of graduation for the past year; the UWF believes it was implemented specifically to keep women from graduating.

“The bar keeps moving,” Srisakul told the Voice. The FST, she added, “is generally harder for people who are smaller. The bigger you are, the easier it is for you.” But in a real fire, she added, “We don’t do what’s required of FST. That’s what I disagree with. We’re going back to exams that have historically had a disparate impact on women.”

Tapia, she said, was injured during grueling training for the FST. “She got stress fractures from doing FST every day, from remedial training. She’s small and they overtrained her. She got stress fractures from that. She wore a boot for two months.” While she was on medical leave, the Post stories began. According to Srisakul, Tapia became concerned that the paper would show up during her next scheduled running time and take photos of her. So she asked to do the run the day she returned from medical leave, before anyone could leak her next test date. “But she wasn’t ready,” Srisakul says, and she didn’t pass. She has since left the Fire Academy.

“In effect, those articles helped her fail,” Srisakul says. “The perpetrators behind all this got what they asked for.”

The ACLU agrees that the FST is a unfair requirement. Mie Lewis heads the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. She told the committee that physical ability tests that rely on upper body strength are just one of a myriad of tactics the FDNY has used to keep women out. “Prior to the 1970s, the fire department and other public agencies simply overtly excluded women,” she said. “When that was no longer possible, minimum height and weight requirements were imposed. When those were invalidated in 1977, that’s when the physical ability tests really started being used.”

Chief Kilduff, though, told the committee that some physical requirements are non-negotiable. “We expect our firefighters to be aerobically fit and ready for fire duty on day one when they walk into the firehouse,” he said. “Based on the history of fireifghters 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.”

Current city council member and public advocate-elect Letitia James also attended the hearing. She was concerned about reports that not all firehouses provide separate restrooms and changing areas for female firefighters. “In 2013,” she said, “every single fire department should be outfitted for women.” James promised to meet privately with the UWF, “so we can talk freely and in depth about the issues you’re suffering.”

Ultimately, Srisakul told the committee, female firefighters aren’t asking for special treatment. “Our opponents think we’re being treated with a double standard. If that were the case, there would be more than 37 women on the job. I’ve had probies tell me they don’t want special treatment. But these are women’s rights. This is the law.”