A 'Band of Sisters' Who Fight Fires, and Try to Break Through Barriers

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Faith Lapidus.  Our program this week is all about women in the fire service.


What you just heard is from newly released emergency radio calls in New York on September eleventh, two thousand one.  Islamic terrorists flew hijacked passenger planes into the World Trade Center.


Firefighters and other rescuers ran into the Twin Towers, hundreds to their deaths.  Within two hours, two of the world's tallest buildings were mountains of ruin.

At the Pentagon, emergency crews struggled to rescue people from the nation's military headquarters, where a third plane hit.  A fourth crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers rebelled.  The attacks killed nearly three thousand people.

Firemen, like soldiers, are often called a "band of brothers."  But men were not the only ones who risked their lives on September eleventh.

Many women were among the rescue workers injured that day, and three were killed.  There is a book called "Women at Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion."  It is a collection of stories told by women firefighters, police officers and others who were there.

Brenda Berkman is a captain in the New York City Fire Department command.  She was home when she heard about the attacks.  She was supposed to be off duty on Nine-Eleven.  For the next two months, she worked in the wreckage of the World Trade Center.  She also provided support to families who lost loved ones.

More than six thousand women in the United States are professional firefighters.  Does that sound like a lot?  It compares with almost one and one-half million men.  Many other firefighters work part time without pay.  About forty thousand women are volunteer firefighters.

Brenda Berkman was responsible for women being hired by the New York City Fire Department.  She was an immigration lawyer.  She wanted to be a firefighter.

Women could join the department since nineteen seventy-seven.  But the physical test kept them out.  It demanded great strength.

To Brenda Berkman, the test was unfair.  She said it did not really test the skills that firefighters need.  A federal court agreed.  The test changed.

And Brenda Berkman got her wish.  She joined the department in nineteen eighty-two.

Today, America's largest city employs about thirty women among almost eleven thousand firefighters. The department has been criticized over low numbers of women and minorities.  Officials say they have expanded efforts to increase those numbers.

Requirements for fire service differ across the country.  But all candidates must be able to do things like raise and climb a ladder.  They must be able to pull heavy fire hoses and the weight of an injured person.

These days, there are fewer fires to fight, and more calls for medical rescue.  The demands of the job have changed.  And now there are new demands in a world that has also changed since September eleventh.  But tradition is still important in the fire service.


Women in the Fire Service, Incorporated, is a group that helps women gain support from one another.

In nineteen eighty, a firefighter in Ohio named Terese Floren was asked to present a class on women in the fire and rescue service.  Nobody was sure how many there were, or where they worked.  Terese Floren collected about two hundred names.  She wrote to the women.  Sixty answered.

Over time, Terese Floren and another firefighter, Linda Willing, added to a list of names.

Women in the Fire Service was established in nineteen eighty-two.  Three years later, it held its first national conference in Boulder, Colorado.  The group meets every two years.  Firefighters, including men, travel from a number of countries to attend.

Women in the Fire Service says the first known woman firefighter in America was Molly Williams.  She was a slave held by a member of Oceanus Engine Company Number Eleven in New York City.  In eighteen eighteen, during a severe snowstorm, Molly Williams helped pull a water pumper with ropes through deep snow.  Slavery was legal in New York State at that time.

In the eighteen twenties, a French-Indian woman named Marina Betts joined bucket brigades in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Brigade members formed a line to pass along buckets of water to firemen.

If men gathered to watch, but not to help, Marina Betts threw cold water on their heads.

In California, there is a famous story in San Francisco about a wealthy woman named Lillie Hitchcock Coit.  This is how it goes:

She was saved from a fire as a child in the eighteen fifties.  Later, when she was fifteen, there was a fire on Telegraph Hill.  Lillie saw that Knickerbocker Engine Company Number Five did not have enough men to pull their fire engine up the hill.  So she helped, and called to others on the street.  The engine was the first to arrive.

After that, the young woman went to many other fires.  The men of Engine Company Number Five made her an honorary member.  All her life she wore a gold fireman's badge that read "Number Five."

In nineteen thirty-three, the Coit Memorial Tower was built on Telegraph Hill with money she left to the city.  People have always thought that the design was meant to honor not just her, but also the firefighters of San Francisco.  The building is tall and round and looks like part of a fire hose.  It seems the designers, however, denied a connection.

One night in eighteen seventy-five, there was a big fire in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  A young woman joined the volunteers from the only fire department in town.  Adelheid von Buckow helped pump water on the fire all night.  Some years later, after she married a member of the department, the men voted her a member as well.

Over the years, women have formed their own fire departments in America.


In nineteen forty-one, American troops entered World War Two.  Women had to fill many jobs left by men, including volunteer firefighters.

Judith Livers is credited as the first woman in a paid job as a modern American firefighter.  She joined the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia in nineteen seventy-four.

She was married to a fireman.  She got interested in the job when he studied fire science.  Judith Livers rose to battalion chief.  She commanded a group of firefighters.  She retired in nineteen ninety-nine.

The road to a job as a professional firefighter is still not easy.  Nor does a job guarantee acceptance.  Women may face hostility in traditionally male firehouses.  Legal actions for unfair treatment are not uncommon.  But, slowly, women have moved into higher-level jobs as firefighters.

The United States has more than thirty thousand fire departments.  As of January, at least twenty-five had women as top-level chiefs.

A woman just took command of the Fire Department in Monterey Park, California.  It is the third city where Cathy Orchard has worked as a firefighter.

In the nineteen eighties, Debra Pryor was the first woman hired by the Fire Department in Berkeley, California.  Now she is in her first year as chief.

The states with the most female firefighters are California, Florida, Texas, Maryland and Virginia.  At the local level, sixteen percent of the firefighters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, are women.  Close behind are Madison, Wisconsin; San Francisco; Boulder; and Miami-Dade County, Florida.  Several other departments are about ten percent women.

These numbers all come from the Web site of Women in the Fire Service, Incorporated.  The address is wfsi.org.

Another group is the Women Chief Fire Officers Association, at womenfireofficers dot org.  It was established in two thousand two for women who are supervisors in emergency services.

The president is Lorrie Kalos, assistant deputy chief of the San Francisco Fire Department.  She told us there are now close to one hundred members.  The goal is to develop more women as leaders in the fire service.


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver.  I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Faith Lapidus.  To send us e-mail, write to special@voanews.com.  Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.