United Women Firefighters Hope To Add To Its Ranks In The FDNY

Aug 18, 2017

Members of the United Women Firefighters
Credit UWF for WBGO

Back in 2014, the City of New York settled a $100 million landmark discrimination lawsuit with the Vulcan Society, the African-American fraternal organization for the FDNY. In that settlement, it committed to a major outreach to achieve diversity in its ranks. As a consequence, the department has had success in hiring more men of color.  Adding women to the ranks remains an even greater challenge.

(Sound of training video and instruction)

It’s a beautiful summer week night at the Fire Museum in Lower Manhattan. Every seat is taken at a class for women whose dream job is to be a New York City firefighter and who will be taking the FDNY test in the fall. They listen intently to an instructional video on the basics of fuel cell technology. Stephanie Torres works as a dietician at Mt. Sinai in Queens. She got the idea to apply from her male roommate.

"He goes to me, “I am taking the Firefighter exam.” And I say, “Oh, that’s cool.” And then he was like, “Maybe you should do it.” And I said, “What?!” I was confused and he was like, “Yea, they have a class for women firefighters for the test.”

Hennelly: Anyone in your family do this?

I will be the first one.

Hennelly: So what did your family say?

"Oh, they don’t know. They will be surprised when I go and visit them this weekend."

FDNY hopeful, Anna Iris Gomez, is following a family tradition.

"My brother had actually applied for the test the last time, and he didn’t make it. And I felt like I was obligated to like follow-up… keep the dream alive, because my Dad was firefighter, and my grandfather was a firefighter—but in the Dominican Republic—so I can feel that runs in my blood."

Gomez’s day job is working for an ophthalmologist, but she is also going for a master’s degree in mental health counseling. She says the two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off Fire Department schedule means she can open up her own mental health counseling practice.

"I love the flexibility, that’s what also drives me to do this, because of what I want to do."

Hennelly: Is there anything they can do to make the process easier?

"My biggest issue right now is the whole anticipation and not knowing. And it is not even guaranteed, because it is so competitive."

Hennelly: So, you are investing a lot.

"Yes, I am investing a lot, but there is always plan B and Plan C."

Sarinya Srisakul is an FDNY firefighter and president of the United Women Firefighters, which was founded in 1982, the same year a federal court ruling cleared the way for women to join. The UWF is holding these classes to help women make the grade. She says the number of women who signed up for the FDNY test was encouraging.

"In the last exam, in 2012, we were really happy, because it was also a landmark year for recruitment. We had about 4000 female test-takers. Now, I believe it is six to seven thousand."

But, Srisakul says, the actual number who make it on to the job is a real disappointment and is the reason why the UWF is holding these classes.

"From the last exam statistics, there was a less than one-percent chance of these women succeeding to become firefighters. Now, that is a huge reason why we are here tonight at the Fire Museum, because we have lost a lot of really good women from the last exam. One of our women, she’s a nurse—she’s a labor-delivery nurse—she got her masters’ at Johns Hopkins; and she scored a 98 on the test, but her social security number was such, she did not get called."

HENNELLY: So why the high attrition rate for the women that are gung-ho to sign up and then dropout?

"I think there are a lot of factors; and, honestly, the biggest barrier is just having them show up. So, you have these record numbers of women filing. Not all of them are going to show up to take the test. So, that’s why these classes are so important. This is our first recruitment cycle doing it. We are doing it on our own, without any help from the Fire Department."

Srisakul says the FDNY needs to drill down on that attrition rate question.

"All that is to say, I feel like the Fire Department is patting themselves on the back with the great numbers of women; but I am more skeptical, because I have been through this process before. And I have seen woman drop out and I don’t want that to happen. I want all these women to get on the job. We have to focus on the attrition rate; and it is lazy for the Fire Department to say, “Oh, they just don’t want the job.” But they signed up and had enough interest to sign up."

Retired Firefighter Harriet Duren, now works at the Fire Museum as an educator. She came on the Fire Department in 1982. She says she’s gratified to see so many young women hoping to join the FDNY today.

"I am so excited when I see them. Sometimes you used to wonder, did we really make a difference? Because over the years, not a lot of women came on the job. And when I see this class, this group of women… and when you walk around the city who recognize women on the job, it is thrilling. Like maybe we did make a difference."

Duren says there was a lot of resistance back then to women taking on what was, traditionally, a man’s job.

"It was being accepted by people—women and men. When we got out of the probie class, a lot of the women were not accepted in the firehouses, even by the wives. I can tell you about Ella McNair, who went to Bensonhurst, and she got there and she was picketed by the wives… And even now, sometimes you hear you tell somebody you were on the job, and they don’t believe you."

Duren says recruits have to really want the job a lot, because the competition is tough.

"I remember I trained for a whole year, six days-a-week; and I worked full-time for the housing authority. And I trained every day, because I wasn’t exactly “Miss Athletic” at the time. I was the kind that never wanted my nails dirty. I did it because everybody said, “You can’t do that,” or “That’s not like you, Harriet, that’s not your style.”

Duren had started her career as a teacher, and then a social worker; but both jobs came up short for her, even though she had a master’s degree.

"But, what I found was you never got what you wanted; and there was always a little disparity between men and women in what they were being paid. That was a really big point; because you try other jobs, you were doing the same job, and you might even have more education. So, that’s when I said, “I got to do a job that a man does to get paid.” And I know, being a union person—civil service it is equal pay."

According to the latest statistics from the National Fire Protection Association 4.6 percent of the nation’s firefighters are women. The UWF says just 0.6 percent of the FDNY is female.