CIVIC CENTER — After a long legal battle, the fire department graduated its most racially diverse class ever earlier this month. Now a group of female firefighters is pushing Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio to take on another fight — boosting the number of women on the force.
United Women Firefighters, which represents the women who make up less than 1 percent of the department, recently sent a letter to de Blasio's transition team asking him to make gender parity a priority in the department, according to Sarinya Srisakul, UWF president and an active duty firefighter.
There are currently 37 female members on the city's FDNY active duty force of nearly 10,500 — three less than when women finally broke through the glass ceiling into the FDNY in 1982, Srisakul said.
“Whenever people see me in the field they're shocked,” she said. “People don’t know that we're out there because we're such small marginalized numbers.”
Srisakul said her group recently sent a letter to de Blasio’s transition team asking them to look for a fire chief who has a proven track record of supporting efforts to bring more women onto the force — someone who is not the current fire commissioner, Sal Cassano, or one of his top deputies.
“We don't want someone who has risen through the ranks of the fire department because that's going to be someone who hasn’t been committed to diversity,” Srisakul said.
For Srisakul, the appointment of a fire commissioner who will be responsive to the issues facing women at every level is paramount. She said that, while she hopes to avoid the sort of legal battle that the department just went through over its racial biases, a recent victory for women firefighters in Chicago showed avenues remained open.
“The bottom line is that the city can't afford another lawsuit,” she said. “We're hoping to resolve this before going down that route.”
Queens Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley held a hearing last Friday in the hopes of highlighting for the incoming administration what she and others say is clear bias against women in the FDNY.
The testimony, reported by the Village Voice, included repeated tales from female firefighters about hazing and harassment, including one firefighter who said her male colleagues cracked raw eggs into her boots.
“Women from a young age are not taught to think about firefighting as a career,” Crowley said.
Crowley and others pointed to a 2008 report published by the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services that showed New York City lagging behind a number of other major metropolitan areas in the percentage of women serving in the fire department.
While New York City has never been able to crack the 1 percent threshold, Los Angeles' fire department was up to 2.5 percent women in 2005. Minneapolis’ force was made up of 17 percent women in 2008. In Chicago, women comprised approximately 2 percent of its force in 2011 — before a gender-bias lawsuit resulted in more than 130 women who had previously failed the entrance exam retaking a revised version of the test earlier this year.
“Like the racial issues, there is institutional discrimination against women [in the FDNY],” said Michelle Caiola, an attorney with Legal Momentum, a women’s rights legal advocacy organization.
“This is certainly not to say that every firefighter, or every firefighter in management there, is hostile to women. But there are enough of them — and enough of them in power — that the system has not changed.”
According to Caiola, the problem is multifold. “It has to do with recruiting. It has to do with entry-level training prior to the physical test. It has to do with mentoring,” she said.
The difficulty begins with the exams, Srisakul said. The most recent class saw 2,000 women take the test, a record in the city. But it also saw the highest rate of dropouts. Only eight women ended up making it through the entire process.
Both Srisakul and Caiola said the department has in recent years increased the amount of physical testing required to make it through the program after the racial bias lawsuit required a more fair process.
“The [Candidate Physical Ability Test] was supposed to solve that issue of the unfairness,” Caiola said. “Now it uses the CPAT, but now it has an additional homegrown test before one can graduate.”
But, similar to the experience of many African-American firefighters in the department who have come forward to complain about working conditions, the few women who enter the force face an often hostile work environment, according to Caiola.
“The women in there — from probationary school, after graduation, while in their firehouses — continue to face unfair treatment and harassment, and a non-responsive system when those incidents occur,” she said.