As firefighter training begins, commissioner defends gender makeup of class
In the fire academy building on Moon Island off the waters of Quincy Bay, the Boston Fire Department’s newest class of recruits sat cross-legged on black rectangular rubber mats and looked at the yoga instructor at the front of the room.
Lauren D’Angelo told the recruits to focus on breathing and stretching, then had them get on all fours in a tabletop pose. “Send your right arm forward out in front of you, let your thumb face up towards the sky,” she said. “Start to lift your left knee, and you’ll extend your left leg back behind you.”
The room was packed. Several aspiring firefighters found the feet of other recruits nearly touching their faces as they followed her instructions.
The Wednesday yoga session was part of a five-day course led by O2X Human Performance, a Quincy-based company that teaches physical fitness, nutrition, and wellness to first responders. The O2X curriculum is now part of the 21-week fire academy and has been credited with helping reduce the rate of firefighter injuries.
Of the 63 recruits in attendance, 54 will go on to work for the Boston Fire Department, and nine will go to other departments (four recruits to Newton, two to Medford, two to Braintree, and one to Reading), Boston fire officials said.
Since 1960, recruits have been coming to Moon Island to learn how to battle fires. In the weeks to come, they will learn how to put out car fires, force open doors, raise ladders, and navigate smoke-filled buildings.
They come from all over the city and beyond.
Matthew St. Marc, 32, moved to Boston from Naples, Fla., so he could finish his bachelor’s degree at Northeastern. “We’ve only been here a week and learned a lot — a lot more than I thought we’d learn, this far in,” the Army veteran said. “There’s big emphasis on taking care of yourself and all the risks that come along with the job. I think that’s awesome that they put that out there, upfront.”
May Ho, 32, of Dorchester has been an EMT for 10 years.
“I’ve worked alongside the Boston Fire Department for a very long time, and besides doing the medicine side, I wanted an opportunity to learn other aspects and different ways to help people . . . so I decided to join the . . . Department.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s been a good experience so far,” she said.
Fire officials said Ho is the first Asian-American woman to join the department. Twenty of the 54 recruits are minorities (six are black, seven Asian, and seven Hispanic). She is the only woman currently in the class.
“This is the most diverse class we’ve had since 2003,” Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn said. “It’s actually 37 percent minority.’’
A report was issued this week by an outside counsel with recommendations aimed at changing department culture and pressing leaders, including Finn, to boost the number of women on the force.
“There’s only one female in this class. There should have been three,” said Finn. One female recruit dropped out for personal reasons. Another female recruit failed to pass the mandatory physical abilities test, he said.
“So she was out of the class,” said Finn. “Those standards are all set by the state. . . . There’s nothing that we can do.”
Finn said the department has been trying to diversify its ranks by raising awareness and doing a “tremendous amount of outreach” in high schools and in the community. But when it comes to hiring, the city is limited in what it can do because civil service exams are administered by the state, he said.
“It’s a state-run process,” he said. When it comes time to hire firefighters, the state sends the department a list of names.
“We have to follow it in chronological order,” he said. “And I can only go with the names they give me. . . . I have no say in it.”
The state holds a civil service exam every two years for firefighters, and Finn said the number of people applying to take the exam has been declining. He said 736 applicants signed up in 2014, 637 in 2016, and only 496 in 2018. The cost of taking the exam has increased in recent years and may be a factor, he said.