Women firefighters talk recruiting, changing nature of firefighting

It has become easier for women to perform the job of firefighting, yet remains difficult to land one

By Irma Widjojo
The Vallejo Times Herald

VALLEJO, Calif. — Neither Cecille Gillette nor Debra Pryor had ever seen a female firefighter while growing up — or even later for that matter.

"I had not seen any women firefighters until I started training to become one," Gillette said.

Despite that, both Gillette and Pryor pursued extinguishing fires as a career.

In 1985, Gillette became the first woman hired by the Vallejo Fire Department, while Pryor, along with being the first woman at the Berkeley Fire Department, eventually became its chief.

Even today, nearly 30 years later, women make up only about 12 percent of career firefighters in the nation.

"I sometimes feel like I'm on display," current Vallejo firefighter Dyhanne Strohmeyer said. "They say things like, 'Oh my God, that's a woman! You go girl!' I get really good positive response."

Strohmeyer is one of the two current women firefighters in the department.

Kathryn Harpold, a recently retired Vallejo fire captain, said that there is still a big challenge in recruiting women into the fire service.

"It never occurred to them that it's an option," said Harpold, who was the second woman ever hired by the department. "You don't see a lot of women in the fire service ... (there's) not a lot of role models."

Harpold is also a member of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services. The association is a nonprofit organization and holds growth and leadership conferences.

Jan Chatelain, a trustee of the organization and a Los Angeles County Fire Department captain, said that there is a lot of misconception about the job.

"It's not a burly man's job anymore," Chatelain said. "Women can also do it.

"When people think of traditional firefighters, they think that we are going to run in and be a hero," she said.

However, it's not always the case today.

Most calls that firefighters receive are medical emergencies, Chatelain said.

"If you look around, most of our health care providers are women," she said.

Vallejo firefighter Strohmeyer also said that she sees a better response from women who are victims of battery or rape, and children, compared to her male counterparts.

While applicants must pass a basic strength test to enter the career, advances in equipment has made it easier for everyone.

"Technology in the fire service has gotten better. Equipment is more light weight, which does not only benefit the women, but all individuals," said Teresa Deloach Reed, Oakland Fire department interim chief. "You don't want to not be able to enjoy your retirement."

Relatability also plays an important role in the recruitment process, she said.

"I've seen a department set up a recruiting booth," Deloach Reed said. "They had all men, and they wonder why they are not getting women applicants."

The public representation of the career is also crucial.

For example, San Francisco Fire Department Chief Joanne Hayes-White said it does no good when children see only male firefighters during activities like fire drills.

"They (girls) think maybe it's a cool job, but it's not something for me," Hayes-White said. "It sends a strong but subtle message to students. It's important to show different races and genders."

Vallejo Fire Chief Paige Meyer said he does not see a lot of women in the hiring pool, but added that does not mean interest is lacking.

"We should focus on letting people know about the opportunity," Meyer said.

Since Meyer was promoted chief in November, he has hired 15 firefighters. All are men.

Meyer said he interviewed two female candidates, who did not get the job.

"We're looking for the best people possible for the department," he said. "It's not about their gender."

Copyright 2012 The Times-Herald
All Rights Reserved


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