NEW YORK, N.Y. - As a New York City firefighter, Sarinya Srisakul didn't work with another woman for five years, and when she did, she took pictures because it was so rare.
"We were so excited to see each other," she said. "For me, that just doesn't happen."
There are only 37 women out of 10,500 uniformed firefighters in New York City, about a third of 1 per cent, among the lowest percentage of any department in the nation. But that number is expected to grow after a record number of women took the latest exam following heavy recruitment spurred by a court order two years ago. Six women entered the fire academy just this week.
"Out of a city of 8 million people, there cannot be only 37 women who are qualified enough and interested in being firefighters — that's just ridiculous," said Srisakul, the president of the women's firefighters association, which has made boosting numbers a priority. She is working to help women pass the rigorous physical exam and meet fire academy expectations to graduate into the job.
Nationwide, the firefighting profession remains overwhelmingly male, with women making up only 3.4 per cent of the total workforce, according to federal labour statistics. Arguments for why there are so few women on the job are common: They don't want to work in a dangerous, dirty industry, and they just aren't strong enough to deal with the physical demands, which include wearing up to 125 pounds of gear or carrying unconscious victims down a darkened stairwell.
"We've tried to recruit women. The reality is for whatever reason, it doesn't seem to be an attractive job," said Steve MacDonald, spokesman for Boston's fire department, which has 18 women out of a force of 1,470.
None of those arguments really holds water, according to Marc Bendick, an economic consultant who did a study on female firefighters nationwide. He found that men and women who take the physical fitness test known as Candidate Physical Ability Test, developed by fire chiefs around the country, pass at about the same rate as long as the test is administered fairly.
"It's not every woman in the U.S. who could pass that test," Bendick said. "But the kind of women who apply for fire jobs, very athletically inclined, they pass. And not every man can pass it either."
Bendick said other big-city fire departments have more balanced numbers, such as 16 per cent in Minneapolis and nearly 5 per cent in Denver. And he noted that previously male-dominated jobs, such as military combat and policing, have already made better strides. New York City's police department, for example, has more than 6,000 female officers out of about 35,000 — or about 18 per cent.
Bendick's study, which researched the experiences of about 600 female and 600 male firefighters, cited as reasons for the lack of women in firefighting an unreasonably high physical standard unrelated to the job duties, a lack of recruitment and hostile behaviour by male colleagues.
Srisakul, who has been a firefighter for nine years, said only 78 per cent of the firehouses in New York are outfitted with facilities for women. Other female FDNY firefighters say they have been harassed, and sexist posters were regularly displayed. At least one recently filed a gender discrimination lawsuit that was settled out of court.
In Chicago, there are about 5,000 firefighters and around 120 are women — and a federal judge just awarded $2 million after ruling the department discriminated against women with a physical fitness test that was measuring brawn over the ability to do the job.
In New York, which has the nation's largest fire department, the FDNY is under court order to hire more diverse classes, but that legal battle has focused mostly on minority men. Members of a black firefighter's union sued; only about 9 per cent of the firefighters are black or Hispanic, though more than half its residents identify with a racial minority group. A federal judge ordered a new written test and better recruitment efforts by the department to boost numbers of minorities. Of the latest class of 319 probationary firefighters that entered the academy this week, 46 per cent are minorities.
To recruit more women, the FDNY launched an aggressive campaign, including attending events organized by Nontraditional Employment for Women, the U.S. military and female athletic clubs and organizations. Candidates are offered additional support through the mentoring program that pairs current female firefighters with female candidates.
"Our extraordinary and unprecedented outreach has resulted in the largest group of potential female candidates ever — and we'll soon have more women as firefighters than ever before in the FDNY," Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano said.
New York's written test is given every four years. Depending on scores, test-takers are asked back for a physical fitness exam and finally for slots in the academy — usually about 300. The 42,161 would-be firefighters who took the most recent fire exam were the most diverse group ever— nearly 46 per cent were minorities. And nearly 2,000 women took the written test — the most ever.
New recruit Choeurlyne Doirin, a mother of two, trains about six days a week to prepare for the rigours of the academy and says she doesn't feel intimidated. She had already worked in emergency services and decided she wanted to be a full-fledged firefighter because she wanted to give back to her community.
"I've always been the oddball everywhere I go. I'm prepared for whatever that may come," she said. "I don't expect for it to be easy but whatever comes, I'll deal with it."
She is among at least a dozen women who attend training sessions twice a week held by the United Women Firefighters.
During a recent session, former Marine Thompson Plyler put a group of about seven women through a grueling course of leg and grip strengthening.
"I want to know you can carry my loved ones to safety," he shouted as the women did hundreds of squats and lifts and ran stairs wearing 50-pound weight vests. One woman fled to puke in the bathroom as Srisakul hollered.
"We want to make you stronger," she said, as the temperature climbed in the workout room.
"You want to know how many flights of stairs I walked up during Sandy?" Srisakul said.
The answer? 100.