United Women Firefighters Say "Backhanded Hazing" and Unfair Testing Is Keeping Women from the FDNY

Categories: FDNY, Fire

Image via FDNY 2012 annual report.
Ten percent of the FDNY's current female firefighters.
The New York City Fire Department is once again facing scrutiny over its low, low numbers of female firefighters. Those numbers could hardly be much worse: there are about 11,000 firefighters in the FDNY today, and just 37 of them are women, less than one half of one percent. The FDNY leadership says they're doing everything they can to recruit more women. But an organization of female firefighters, along with American Civil Liberties Union, say the FDNY is still promoting unfair testing practices designed to keep women out, and that hazing and harassment of female firefighters is still common.

Brenda Berkman thinks this whole situation looks unpleasantly familiar. Berkman sued the FDNY for gender discrimination FDNY in the 1970s, leading to the department being ordered to hire women. At a hearing on Friday, December 13, she accused the FDNY of "repeating many of the same mistakes that led to its terrible record in the recruitment and hiring of women firefighters."

Berkman's testimony came during a hearing held by the City Council's Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, where the city council members heard from FDNY Department Chief Edward Kilduff, as well as two other senior FDNY officials, the department's chief medical officer and the official in charge of diversity recruitment. They also heard testimony from members of the United Women Firefighters Association (UWF). The pictures the two groups painted of the department were starkly different.

The FDNY has been forced to make a lot of changes lately; a successful 2009 lawsuit from the Justice Department and the Vulcan Society, an organization of black firefighters, resulted in a federal judge ordering the overwhelmingly white department to create a new entrance exam and appoint a court monitor to make sure their hiring and recruiment practices didn't discriminate against people of color. This year, 62 percent of the graduating class are people of color, the highest ever.

It sounds like not everyone is expected to take the change gracefully: when many newly-minted "probies" (probationary officers) of color enter their firehouses for the first time, the New York Times reports that commanders are being sent to watch over the process and make sure they aren't harassed. The federal judge who presided over the case, Nicholas Garaufis, has also had police protection at his house.

But despite a 2006 probe by the Justice Department over the FDNY's hiring of women, the number of female firefighters has barely budged. Chief Kilduff pointed out, though, that in 2011, 4,200 women applied to take the 2012 written exam to become a firefighter, more than the three previous tests in 1999, 2002, and 2007.

"Twelve women have graduated in the last three classes," Kilduff added. "Not since the first woman joined the department, in more than 30 years, have we seen that many women come on the job." He said, too, that recruitment "is only one part of the overall effort we make to get women to come on the job and have long careers in the FDNY."

But Brenda Berkman disagrees, as does Sarinya Srisakul, the current president of the UWF. Both of them, along with City Council member Elizabeth Crowley, who heads the Fire and Criminal Justice committee, were especially concerned with a recent series of New York Post articles about a probie named Wendy Tapia, who the paper dubbed "unfireable." The stories said that Tapia had failed to complete a key requirement to graduate from the Fire Academy, running a mile and a half in under twelve minutes. Tapia tried six times to make that time, falling short by 20 seconds.

Srisakul was concerned with how the Post gained access to Tapia's name and test scores, and the way they selectively used that information, along with anonymous quotes from "management sources" inside the Fire Academy, to discredit her.

"A few anonymous firefighters leaked the private information of this woman and her medical information," Srisakul told the committee. "These are criminal activities... The smear campaign went viral in the department, and made both the local and national news." The result, she said, was "significant damage to her reputation and psyche. It also successfully generated the message that women are not welcome in the department." The incident, Srisakul said, is an example of the "backhanded hazing" women face on the job.

Another current firefighter, Tracey Lewis, who usually works in Bed-Stuy, shared several disturbing stories from her temporary assignment to a firehouse in Canarsie, where her fellow firefighters routinely "misplaced" her gear and threw eggs into her boots. She also received what she described as "harassing, threatening" phone calls at work.

Although Lewis reported the incidents to management, she says. "Nothing changed. I went to work as scheduled. The harassment continued. And of course, no one is ever held accountable for anything."

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