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Thread: Female Firefighters Fight Perception

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    Female Firefighters Fight Perception

    Female Firefighters Fight Perception

    AP National Writer

    NEW YORK (AP) -- The question is awkward to ask, but not hard to answer: Why were no women among the 343 firefighters killed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11?

    Numbers tell the story. Nationally, roughly 2 percent of professional firefighters are female. In New York City, women account for just 28 of 11,400 firefighters -- less than 0.3 percent.

    For Lt. Brenda Berkman, who broke the department's *** barrier in 1982, the past six months have been doubly difficult. She was devastated by the loss of her friends and colleagues, yet dismayed by a sense that women in public-safety jobs were being slighted amid tributes to male bravery.

    ``What was most hurtful was to be so invisible at the funerals and memorial services,'' said Berkman, who heads the small women firefighters union. ``The officials giving the eulogies would talk about 'firemen,' the 'brothers,' the 'men.' After 20 years, it was tough to take.''

    Berkman, who spent Sept. 11 and subsequent weeks working at ground zero, had to sue her way into the fire department. She endured repeated harassment early in her career -- and her trailblazing didn't produce a transformation.

    More than 92 percent of New York's current firefighters are white men, and only one woman is among more than 600 recruits hired since Sept. 11. The city's equal employment commission last year chided fire officials for resisting diversification, but suspended efforts to force compliance after the attacks.

    New York is one of many cities with a nearly all-male fire department, but some places have broken the pattern. Minneapolis, for example, has 72 women among its 460 firefighters -- almost 16 percent.

    The assistant chief in Minneapolis, Ulie Seal, said a key step was developing a physical test that reflected on-the-job demands, not just brute strength. The department offers training to help women prepare for the test and will consider any applicant who passes, not just those with the highest scores.

    ``I'm hesitant to say you can translate this to Anytown USA, because I don't live in Anytown,'' Seal said. ``But what we've done has worked very well for us here.''

    The president of the local firefighters union, Tom Thornberg, agreed.

    ``There have been growing pains, but it certainly has been working out,'' he said. ``Any city could do this if they really wanted to.''

    New York's physical exams -- its tasks include raising a 20-foot ladder and pulling a heavy hose -- are among the toughest anywhere, with many men as well as women failing to meet the time limits. But Berkman says more women could pass if the city intensified recruiting, then supported female applicants with mentoring and training.

    ``You don't have to be an Olympic athlete to pass this test,'' she said. ``But we have a long way to go in making people aware that this is a job women are successful at. They love it, and they want other young women to follow in their footsteps.''

    Since the attacks, New York has a new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and new faces overseeing the fire department. Veteran public servant Douglas White has been appointed deputy fire commissioner with the expectation he will push for diversity.

    ``We're deeply committed to getting more qualified women and minorities,'' said White, who is black. ``All the women will have the opportunity to enter a rigorous training program to help them get ready to take the test.''

    Thomas Von Essen, the former fire commissioner, said New York should retain its difficult physical exam but seek out athletic women who could pass it. ``We have done a poor job recruiting women, just like we've done a horrible job recruiting minorities,'' he said.

    One problem is the relative infrequency of firefighter exams, Von Essen said. Women and minorities often are deterred by the prospect of waiting several years, while candidates with family or friends in the department are more familiar with the process.

    There are now about 5,600 professional female firefighters nationwide, up from zero in 1973, according to Women in the Fire Service. The Wisconsin-based group's director, Terese Floren, shares Berkman's frustration over post-Sept. 11 commentaries.

    ``There were all sorts of stories of how men did this, men did that, how all the firefighters killed were men,'' she said. ``Somehow that's being used to prove there shouldn't be women firefighters. But if this happened almost anywhere else, there might have been 20 or 30 women firefighters killed.''

    Only a handful of urban fire departments have female chiefs -- among them is Eileen Lewis, who became the first female firefighter in Tacoma, Wash., in 1981 and was named chief two years ago. Of her department's 425 firefighters, 36 are women.

    She recalled the chilly reception when she entered the profession.

    ``It seemed overwhelming, the negativism, the establishment not wanting you there,'' she said. ``Some of the men in your group felt for you, but they didn't want to be in the group, because the officers worked you harder.''

    Seeking to expand the ranks of female firefighters, the main firefighters union has developed a new test, similar to the one in Minneapolis, that will be offered to departments nationwide.

    Applicants must complete the Candidate Physical Ability Test within a cutoff time of 10 minutes, 20 seconds -- breaking down a door, pulling a 165-pound dummy and performing other tasks while wearing a 50-pound vest.

    ``You can't reduce the standards -- if there's a weak link, you get killed,'' said George Burke, spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters. ``But anyone with the physical capabilities should have the right to come on the job.''

    Last edited by Neil; 03-18-2002 at 05:56 PM.

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    March 18, 2002

    Firefighter Berkman Is Two Kinds of a Hero
    Run Date: 12/31/01
    By Maya Dollarhide
    WEnews correspondent
    A leader for the 25 women firefighters among 11,500 men, Lt. Brenda Berkman was one of the first on the scene on Sept. 11. In the 1980s, she was another kind of hero. She sued and won the right for her and other women to work as firefighters.

    NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Lieutenant Brenda Berkman was off duty when the first plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. She threw on her uniform and ran to the nearest firehouse. As a highly visible female officer in the New York City Fire Department, Berkman went without a question.

    Berkman has long been a different kind of hero for a type of bravery that is often unsung and forgotten: She sued for the right to have the job she loves and won in 1982 a ***-discrimination lawsuit that opened the way for the hiring of women by the fire department. She remains a strong advocate for women and is a high profile figure in both the city and national organization for women firefighters. Her dedication to the fire department is so complete that she and her partner Pamela live in Brooklyn, close to the fire department's headquarters. Today, the department still resists hiring women and the city has only 25 women firefighters among more than 11,500 male firefighters.

    "I got to the site after the second collapse. The scene was beyond belief: choking air, burning cars and buses, twisted metal," Berkman said. "It was all paper and dust. No big pieces of concrete, like you might expect. It wasn't like Oklahoma City, where the bomb blew off one side of the building and you could see the floors. Everything was pulverized."

    Berkman took a small group of firefighters to search for her battalion from lower Manhattan, the Number 12 Ladder Company. Her greatest fear had been realized--three members of her company were missing. They had perished, but she could not accept that.

    'They Must Be Somewhere'
    "I thought: We can find them. Thousands of people were missing and they must be somewhere. We'll start now and get them to the hospital, and that will be that," she said. Firefighters usually organize a search in three stages: first, the surface; then, voids in the area; and finally, the entire affected area. In this case, it was not that simple. The site resembled a war zone more than a four-alarm fire, with smoking debris, burning metal and a thick haze of corrupted air. "We knew that the clock was ticking. I did one surface sweep and found a firefighter's jacket. And that's all I found," she said.

    Berkman, the founder and president of United Women Firefighters organization in New York, began her career in the fire service in 1982. She has also led the national organization of women firefighters, Women in the Fire Service, Inc., serving both as a trustee and as president of the board.

    In 1996 her talents took her to Washington, D.C., to serve as a White House Fellow in the Office of the Secretary of Labor, the first and only professional firefighter to be accorded the honor. She is a graduate of St. Olaf

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    Story by Nancy Sheehan
    Photos by Betty Jenewin
    Next month the first women ever to become Worcester firefighters will mark their first anniversary on the job. The transition from an all-male department generated anxiety, and there were some doubts among the rank and file. But most seem to agree the intrepid trio

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    Georgia Fire Department Hires First Black Female Fire Chief

    Georgia Fire Department Hires First Black Female Fire Chief


    Assistant Chief Rosemary R. Cloud of the Atlanta, Ga. Fire Department made history Friday when she accepted a position as Chief of the East Point, Ga. Fire Department, becoming the nation's first black female fire chief.

    Cloud is currently negotiating a contract with the city and expects to take her post there in 30 days.

    Chief Rosemary R. Cloud
    The nation's first black female
    fire chief.

    Cloud's status as the "first" hasn't been confirmed by an official source, but "That's what I'm being told," she said, by colleagues and by the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters.

    When she first started her career in 1980, Cloud had no doubt that she would one day become Chief. But that's because she had no idea how difficult and time consuming it would be to work her way up through the command structure. "I didn't have a clue," she said.

    Cloud, a 22-year veteran of the Atlanta Fire Department, currently serves as the Assistant Chief of Airport Fire Operations, making her the highest-ranking female firefighter in the department.

    But she started out in life as a paralegal. She had never even thought about firefighting until she heard about job openings at the Atlanta Fire Department.

    "I heard they were hiring and I was a little bored with what I was doing, so I figured I'd give it a chance," she said.

    After she began training she knew it was the right job. Whatever path people take in deciding to become firefighters, she said, "I truly believe this is a chosen profession - chosen for us instead of us choosing it."

    When she started, there were seven other African-American women in the department.

    "In 1980 they had just accepted that the department wasn't going to be white-male dominated," she said.

    Cloud spent ten years as a firefighter before her first promotions.

    She failed her first attempts at the driver and lieutenant tests, she said, because she was focused on allegations in the department of cheating, discrimination, and pre-determined decisions about who would be promoted.

    "I was focused on the problem instead of the solution - to devote as much time as possible to studying and preparing," she said.

    Cloud said she gave up six months of her life to prepare for her next lieutenant exam, on which she placed fourth, and later another six months to prepare for the captain's exam, on which she placed first.

    Shortly after making Captain, she was promoted to Battalion Chief in 1996 about a month before the the summer Olympics, and became responsible for the largest battalion in the city and three Olympic venues.

    After the Olympics she returned to covering the airport, and was appointed to Assistant Chief in September 2000.

    Cloud said she did see extra challenges along the way because of her race and gender, but now that's rare because of the strong reputation she has built.

    "When I first started as a firefighter I faced all kinds of challenges," she said. Coworkers expected her to do a lot of housework around the station and to stay in the kitchen.

    They were also uncomfortable with letting her learn to drive the apparatus, she said. One of her superiors kept refusing to give her permission to learn, so she eventually got someone else to do it.

    Cloud also said people sometimes underestimated her or tried to put her down, such as attributing her successes to "women's intuition" instead of technical knowledge, or claiming that she surpassed them in rank only because she is a minority.

    "There was a lot of stuff that I can't even recall right now because it was so long ago," she said.

    There are now about 48 women in the Atlanta Fire Department, including another female battalion chief, a female captain and two lieutenants.

    The East Point department has about five women out of 110 workers.

    "I don't expect my race or gender to be a challenge where I'm going," she said. "I think the challenge will be that the people there have been without a chief for a while."

    Cloud said she is looking forward to working with the people in East Point, and that she plans an open-door leadership style that includes people from all ranks on every project.

    Cloud admitted she has been getting calls of congratulations on her new position from colleagues all over the U.S., but said not much else is different.

    "I really feel like the same person," she said. "But it feels good to be able to help somebody else and that's very important. That's paramount to my spiritual growth."

    Cloud said it is also paramount to her to have a support group of people she can trust and who can see her in her weaker moments and still be supportive.

    "I think the reason I've come this far... I give all my credit to God, and to the support of people inside and outside the department," she said.

    Cloud said she plans to increase her time spent mentoring young girls through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and to continue making herself available to women interested in the fire service or in career advancement.

    "My main thing is to make contact. If they need a shoulder to lean on, I'm here for them," she said.

    Cloud will feel especially at home in East Point, located about five miles southwest of Atlanta, because she grew up there. She is the youngest of 14 children, and has one daughter and one granddaughter.

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    Thank you sisters

    Although I have been sensitive to the lack of female pronouns and wording of "sisters", I know we are including every FF in our tributes.

    I would like to apologize to all of the women we may have slighted and send my love and respect to each of you.

    I would also like to recognize the capable and caring service of Lynne Tierney, Deputy Commissioner (and my long-time neighbor).
    Last edited by Chris; 03-18-2002 at 11:25 PM.

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