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WomanOf the Month4-03: Pioneers in Firefighting

Less than 30 years ago, women were just beginning to break down barriers to careers in firefighting. At a recent Women in the Fire Service Inc. international convention, caught up with three pioneers in their field: Rochelle Jones, one of the first women firefighters in New York City and soon to be the first woman battalion chief; Deanne Shulman, the first U.S. woman smokejumper; and Terese Floren, also one of the first women firefighters and co-founder and director of Women in the Fire Service.

The daughter of a firefighter, Jones decided to take the test in 1978, the first year New York City opened it to women. She passed the written test easily, but the physical test involved non-job-related challenges that were judged subjectively and seemed designed to screen out women. No woman passed the original physical test, and a class action suit filed as a result by Brenda Berkman wasn’t settled until 1982. With the physical test altered to focus on job-related activities such as forcing doors and raising ladders, Jones and 44 other women passed. Forty-one of those accepted firefighting jobs in New York City.

Having helped break down those barriers, however, Jones faced a nearly unbearable hostile environment at her assignment in Brooklyn over the next several years. From daily name-calling to death threats, Jones, the only woman in the firehouse, was an outcast. By 1984 she had developed ulcers, asked for a transfer, and was assigned to an engine company on Staten Island. There she found a collegial environment, although she was greeted the first day by a male firefighter who answered the door and said, "I’ve got one thing to say—women don’t belong in this job." Jones broke the ice by laughing and saying, "You must be the welcome committee!"

In 1994 Jones was promoted to lieutenant and returned to her old neighborhood in Brooklyn. "It was really immeasurable, the improvement in the attitude toward women in 10 years," she recalls. ‘The climate had gone from where you couldn’t stand up for yourself, because there were no regulations about sexual harassment, to where your harassers would have been admonished."

In 1997 she took the test for captain, scored high and two years later was assigned to Lower Manhattan. "I hadn’t had any high-rise experience, so it was a little unnerving," she says. In November 2000 she was assigned to Engine 4 in Lower Manhattan.

On 9/11, Jones was on vacation in New Mexico and woke up to TV coverage of the World Trade Center devastation. She feared that everyone she worked with had been killed; adding to her concern was the knowledge that her parents in New York did not know whether she had returned yet from vacation.

Jones drove back to New York City that weekend. "Once I got to the site I went into job mode," she recalls. "I knew the minute I saw the site that we weren’t getting anyone else out of there. Everything was pulverized." She didn’t dig on the pile, but her company, which had lost 14 men—about a third of its workforce—was consumed with getting its firehouse back into shape. In the next months Jones took on many new roles—counselor, mother, and confidante in addition to her duties as captain. "I met families of the guys I’d never met before. You write eulogies and coordinate funerals," she says. "It was a whole bizarre world. There was no downtime for months. Not a day goes by that we don’t mention some of the guys who were lost—they were the heart and soul of the company. " She notes that her work world will never be "normal" again. "It’s never going to be Sept. 10. Every time there’s an alarm at the Federal Reserve or the Exchange, I wonder, is this a normal call?"

After taking the battalion chief test in April 2000, she is waiting for a position to open. She was the only woman eligible to take the test.

Deanne Shulman faced similar challenges as a woman in firefighting. Raised in L.A., she was hired in 1974 to work in fire management in the Los Padres National Forest. She started on the engine crew and then worked on a helicopter crew for several years. During that time she filled in occasionally with the hotshot crew—a 20-person elite group reputed to be one of the best in the U.S. She was asked to join the crew in 1977. While there was no physical test, the crew did fitness training every morning. "The project work itself was physically grueling—putting in trails, cutting fuel breaks, running chain saws all day," recalls Shulman.

"I did that for several seasons, and then I applied for smokejumping. It’s considered very prestigious, although once you are on the ground you are doing the same work as any firefighter," she says. "There are about nine bases in the western U.S. and Alaska, with about 400 smokejumpers scattered about. It’s a very tight community."

Shulman knew she had to put on five pounds in order to meet the weight requirement of 130 pounds. She passed the physical test, and then was weighed. She had lost the weight she’d put on, and was told she didn’t have a job. "I was devastated," she says.

She landed a job in the Tahoe Basin that summer while considering her options. She wrote a letter to the forest supervisor explaining her position and her dream of working as a smokejumper, and received what she considered a bureaucratic letter in response. Stung by what she perceived as a lack of concern for the dedication and years of service she had given to the Forest Service, she filed an equal employment opportunity complaint.

Eventually Shulman was allowed to return to the smokejumpers with the understanding that she had to weigh 130 at the outset but would not be weighed again. She passed rookie training, which involved a packout test that required carrying 115 pounds 2 /12 miles crosscountry in several hours. "That was the hardest part for small women," she says. She worked as a smokejumper for five seasons and earned her degree in forest management in 1981. At that point a mentor told her it was time to get a "real" job. "It was difficult, because smoke jumping is addictive. It’s wild and crazy, you feel so free, and you’re traveling. There’s a culture that’s really different and a real diversity of people."

Shulman accepted a job as battalion chief in fire management, which she held for nine years before moving into international work. Sparking her interest in international jobs was an exchange with Russia’s aerial fire service. She spent seven weeks in central Siberia on a three-person team—an experience she describes as incredible, and which "changed my whole perspective of everything. I fell in love with Russia." She began to pursue more such work through the international programs office.

During this time, however, another shadow fell over her career. She was passed over for a promotion to fire division chief. A lengthy discrimination suit ensued. "It took two years, 10 months and 16 days until they settled with me," she says. Her sick leave was reinstated, her lawyer paid, and she received the promotion pay. In the meantime her international work was taking off. She traveled to Mongolia on a fire assessment and to Kenya on a humanitarian assistance assignment as liaison with the U.S. Agency for International Development. In 1997 she went to Jakarta where she headed up a $1.1 million program. Coming up in the next three years: disaster response work in India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

Women in the Fire Service co-founder and director Terese Floren also was one of the earliest career women firefighters in the U.S. She worked as a volunteer firefighter while at Antioch College in Ohio and then was hired by the fire department in Fairborn, Ohio, in 1975. Although she was prepared to do men’s pushups for the physical test, the supervisor insisted that she do women’s pushups. Later she worked for 10 years in a Dayton suburb as a firefighter.

In 1982 she co-founded Women in the Fire Service, a non-profit organization, along with Linda Willing, and began devoting herself full-time to the organization in 1989. The idea for the organization germinated in 1980 when she sent out a survey to fire departments where women worked to measure, among other things, their interest in joining such an organization. She was impressed by the results: more than 180 women responded. The organization provides a newsletter, conferences, seminars, a networking community,