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Female firefighters in N.Y. try to raise numbers

City has only 37 women in force of about 10,500

Hildany Santana (center) and Giselle King (right) were among those in training to join the ranks of the New York Fire Department. Officials have stepped up recruitment.Seth Wenig/associated press

NEW YORK — As a New York City firefighter, Sarinya Srisakul did not work with another woman for five years, and when she did, she took pictures because it was so rare.

‘‘We were so excited to see each other,’’ she said. ‘‘For me, that just doesn’t happen.’’

Out of about 10,500 uniformed firefighters in New York City, only 37 are women, or about a third of 1 percent, among the lowest percentage of any department in the nation.

But that number is expected to grow after a record number of women took the latest exam following heavy recruitment spurred by a court order two years ago. Six women entered the fire academy recently.


‘‘Out of a city of 8 million people, there cannot be only 37 women who are qualified enough and interested in being firefighters — that’s just ridiculous,’’ said Srisakul, president of the women’s firefighters association, which has made boosting numbers a priority.

She is working to help women pass the rigorous physical exam and meet fire academy expectations to graduate into the job.

Nationwide, the firefighting profession remains overwhelmingly male, with women forming only 3.4 percent of the total workforce, according to federal labor statistics.

Arguments for why there are so few women on the job are common: They don’t want to work in a dangerous, dirty industry, and they just are not strong enough to deal with the physical demands, which include wearing up to 125 pounds of gear or carrying unconscious victims down a darkened stairwell.

‘‘We’ve tried to recruit women. The reality is for whatever reason, it doesn’t seem to be an attractive job,’’ said Steve MacDonald, spokesman for Boston’s fire department, which has 18 women in a force of 1,470.

But Marc Bendick, an economic consultant who did a study on female firefighters nationwide, found that men and women who take the physical fitness test known as Candidate Physical Ability Test, developed by fire chiefs across the country, pass at about the same rate as long as the test is administered fairly.


‘‘It’s not every woman in the US who could pass that test,’’ Bendick said. ‘‘But the kind of women who apply for fire jobs, very athletically inclined, they pass. And not every man can pass it either.’’

Bendick said other big-city fire departments have more balanced numbers, such as 16 percent in Minneapolis and nearly 5 percent in Denver. And he noted that previously male-dominated jobs, such as military combat and policing, have already made better strides.

New York City’s Police Department, for example, has more than 6,000 female officers out of about 35,000 — or about 18 percent.

Bendick’s study, which researched the experiences of about 600 female and 600 male firefighters, cited as reasons for the lack of women in firefighting an unreasonably high physical standard unrelated to the job duties, a lack of recruitment, and hostile behavior by male colleagues.

Srisakul, who has been a firefighter for nine years, said only 78 percent of the firehouses in New York are outfitted with facilities for women.

Other female firefighters in New York say they have been harassed, and sexist posters were regularly displayed. At least one recently filed a gender discrimination lawsuit that was settled out of court.

In Chicago, there are about 5,000 firefighters and about 120 are women — and a federal judge just awarded $2 million after ruling the department discriminated against women with a physical fitness test that was measuring brawn over the ability to do the job.


To recruit more women, the FDNY launched an aggressive campaign, including attending events organized by Nontraditional Employment for Women, the US military, and female athletic clubs and organizations. Candidates are offered additional support in a mentoring program that pairs current female firefighters with female candidates.