Calif. city's female firefighter population shrinking

30 years after San Jose hired its first female firefighter, just 35 of 631 uniformed firefighters, paramedics are women

By Bruce Newman
The San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — If every little boy who ever wanted to be a fireman actually became one, there would be a hook and ladder in every driveway and five-alarm chili in every pot. And there would be very few fires.

Even when the Harris Poll changed the term to "firefighter" as women entered the profession three decades ago, it remained among the most prestigious of all occupations for Americans. But 30 years after San Jose hired its first female firefighter, there are few women on the job -- just 35 of 631 uniformed firefighters and paramedics.

And yet women firefighters remain passionate and committed to their work despite their dwindling ranks nationwide. "During the job interview in San Jose, they ask how you think you're going to measure up to these total kick-ass women there," says Amy McClure, who was among the city's last female firefighters hired in 2009.

"It's still a male-dominated profession," says Karen Allyn, the pioneer who broke the San Jose Fire Department's gender barrier in 1981, "no doubt about it."

Allyn shook things up enough in local firehouses to pry open the big red doors for women who came later, like Vivian Lo, 32, a 10-year veteran. "You always hear about little boys wanting to become a firefighter or an astronaut," Lo says. "I was one of those strange little girls who always wanted to be a firefighter when I grew up."

Karren Augustine had just finished a four-year hitch with the military police when she switched to putting out fires 17 years ago. She's still amused about the first flame that got doused -- the whole "firefighter hot" mystique that turned shirtless firemen into pinups.

"You'll see girls in cars looking into the fire truck, giving guys the wink," Augustine says. "But you wouldn't feel the same way after working with them a week."

"More hoops"

San Jose's assimilation of women firefighters has been a slow burn. Two years ago, Teresa Deloach Reed became the department's first female assistant chief, but only 5.5 percent of San Jose's first-responders are women. That's better than the rate at which women are being hired nationally -- 3.7 percent, according to a 2008 report. However, it's lagging behind the female firefighter force in San Francisco, where the chief and 15 percent of the firefighters are women.

"Does the San Jose Fire Department treat people equally gender-wise?" asks attorney Angela Alioto, who is representing two members of the San Jose department in a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the city. "Absolutely not. It would be absurd given the statistics to say that it did."

The suit -- filed by Debra Ward and Patricia Tapia, captains with 23 and 25 years of service, respectively -- claims that Ward scored highest on a 2009 exam for battalion chief, and Tapia had the eighth-highest score. Yet promotions went to nine men.

Both women are still firefighters, and Tapia, who declined to comment on the lawsuit, did eventually get the promotion she sought. According to her attorney, there was no ceremony, just a meeting to which she was summoned late one night in Chief Willie McDonald's office after the lawsuit was filed. Court documents quote Tapia asking McDonald, "Why do women have to continue to do more than men? Why do I have to jump through more hoops than the less-qualified males?"

McDonald didn't respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. Alioto contends the chief promoted Tapia only because she had such a strong legal case. "He really hated giving it to her," Alioto says. "But I'm sure the city attorney was telling him, 'You've got to do it.'"

Slow change

With firefighters of both genders being laid off amid budget cutbacks, the women's ranks have thinned in recent years. The department continues to conduct academies, but no women are enrolled in the class that convened Monday.

No one finds the current ratio of women to men in San Jose's firehouses more troubling than Allyn, who had to wait five years for the department to hire more women after she broke the gender barrier three decades ago.

"Think about that," says Allyn. "Why do you suppose it took so long? Now that they had one, they figured that was good enough, they didn't have to go out and get anymore. They were just watching, hopeful I was going to go away."

She considered quitting when the hazing and the harassment got really bad. "In the beginning, it was not looked upon favorably to be my friend," Allyn says, leaving it at that. But she was mulishly stubborn.

"It was nothing I had ever dreamed about," Allyn recalls. "I was 20 years old and just looking for a career."

At the outset of what would become a 28-year career, Allyn had to figure out bathroom and sleeping arrangements at each new station. Even when she was about to make history by graduating from the academy, nothing was done to accommodate a woman in firehouses where companies typically live for days at a time. Bathrooms often lacked doors on the stalls.

Mixed reception

When Augustine and Mary Gutierrez, now a captain, started as probationary firefighters 17 years ago at Station No. 1, women still had to change in a broom closet. They rose before the men, locked the bathroom door, bathed and then quickly fled.

Some old-timers in the firehouses greeted female recruits as they might daughters; others became brothers in boots. But some never could share their domain. "There were days when we were given a hard time," Gutierrez says, "and times when things were not fair ... when you were ready to pop with frustration."

Gutierrez dreamed of being a forest ranger when she was growing up near Camp Pendleton, and in a martial-arts class filled with Marines she earned a black belt at 13. "At an early age, I didn't really see a differentiation between being a guy and being a gal," she says. After her sister became a police officer, Gutierrez trained to be a firefighter, and in 1994 joined San Jose's.

Her marriage to another captain, Robert Gutierrez, is one of an estimated dozen romantic unions that have formed in San Jose. Couples are forbidden to work together permanently in the same station. "For women in this profession, dating does have its challenges," says Augustine, 44, who has a boyfriend and a 2-year-old son. "You know, 'How was your day at the office? I had a bitchin' fire today.'"

In the late '90s, when their numbers were more plentiful, seven women were assigned to the same downtown station. "It was all women on the engine and three on the truck," Mary Gutierrez recalls. "We took a photo, and everybody was just glowing. I remember seeing little girls in the back seats of cars waving at us. And the moms would give you a thumbs-up."

Which beats a wink any time.

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