A Burning Disparity | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The last time the City of Pittsburgh hired a woman firefighter, Bill Clinton was beginning his second term, O.J. Simpson had been found liable in civil court for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, and the highest-grossing movie of all time, Titanic, had just been released. It was 1997.

Today, there are just 11 women on a force of 637 firefighters -- just 1.7 percent of the entire department. And Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration says it recognizes the problem.

"That was one of the first questions I was asked when I was interviewed for this position: 'There's a lack of diversity, do you have any ideas?'" recalls Fire Chief Darryl E. Jones, who was promoted to chief in September 2007. "It's something that has plagued the fire-service industry across the nation. We're trying to catch up. Mayor Ravenstahl has mandated that we do everything possible to increase diversity."

The gender diversity in Pittsburgh's fire department lags behind the national average. According to "A National Report Card on Women in Firefighting," an April 2008 study by two civil-rights attorneys and two social scientists, women make up 3.7 percent of firefighters nationally.

The report found that women make up about 17 percent of the workforce in professions researchers deemed similarly demanding, dirty and dangerous: jobs like welding, logging and septic-tank servicing.

"[The study] points to a future where, barring continued cultural and traditional resistance, women should comprise 17 percent (up from the current 3.7 percent national average) of the first-responders work force," the introduction to the report card reads.

"If you compare firefighting to outside, dangerous jobs, women occupy 17 percent of those positions," Jones says, echoing the report. "It is our goal to make the fire bureau more diverse."

Already, though, women make up roughly one-fifth of the personnel in the city's other first-response departments -- police and paramedics. The police force of 892 includes 172 women; the Emergency Medical Services department has 178 members with 38 women.

Pittsburgh's fire department could be doing worse, however: In more than half the nation's cities, the Report Card found, there has never been a single woman hired as a professional fire fighter.

"Our goal is to get more applicants," says mayoral spokesperson Joanna Doven. "We are trying very hard. It's one of the mayor's goals to have a diverse leadership in public safety."

The city hires fire-department employees from lists of candidates who pass a civil-service and a physical-ability exams. Applicants who pass those tests go on a ranked list of candidates, from which new hires are drawn. The list remains valid for up to three years.

A recruitment period just concluded at the end of 2008. Of 958 applicants who passed the written test, 70 were women, and 872 were men. (City data left the sex of 16 applicants unaccounted for.) Those 958 people now still have to pass the physical examination, and those who do will then become eligible for hiring.

"Overall, it is the physical agility test that hampers women," says Jones, the fire chief. "We're trying to give them the opportunity to practice." Anyone who passed the written portion of the exams is able to practice the agility exams -- which measure strength and flexibility with tasks like dragging a 150-pound rope dummy, hauling a fire hose to the top of a five-story tower and driving a battering-ram-like device with a sledgehammer -- since familiarity with the test often increases pass rates.

But the first step is just getting women to apply for the job.

"We are in the process right now of [starting to] generate a new fire eligibility list: soliciting applications, testing; written and physical ability," writes Barbara Trant, the city's director of personnel and civil service, in an e-mail. "During the recruitment phase of this process, the city expended massive efforts to encourage women and minorities to apply."

For example, Tamiko Stanley, the city's equal opportunity officer, has done "road shows" going into neighborhoods and encouraging women and minorities to apply for city jobs.

"We launched DiverseCity 365 with those very statistics as one of the primary reasons," says Stanley. The DiverseCity 365 initiative is a program that does aggressive outreach for professional jobs into underrepresented communities within the city. "We're moving in the right direction."

Often, "the low number of women [firefighters] is a chicken-and-egg problem," says Gillian Thomas, a staff attorney at Legal Momentum in New York. Firehouses are often not equipped with shower or locker-room facilities for women, and equipment is often ill-fitting, which, when the equipment supplies the wearer with oxygen, for instance, can be a matter of life and death. Female firefighters may also be shunned or harassed by male counterparts. All of this, Thomas says, keeps women from applying for firefighting jobs in the first place. Legal Momentum has already convinced one federal appeals court that fire departments must provide equipment that fits women, and that not doing so is sex discrimination.

There are things cities can do to boost diversity, says Kimberly Cox, founder and president of the North Star Women's Firefighting Association. The association is a nonprofit advocacy group in Eden Prairie, Minn. -- where Cox is a full-time firefighter. Local firefighters have gone from being 3 percent female to 5 percent women in the past few years. It's been mainly through outreach efforts, Cox says.

"Over the past three years, we have worked with several metro departments around us to create events that bring women into the department for a day," Cox writes in an e-mail. "Not only have we been able to recruit several women through these events, but we have also learned about some of the fears and obstacles that women face when trying to become a part of the Fire Service.

"Women are as capable as men when it comes to call response," Cox continues in the e-mail. "For most departments I have been in contact with, both women and men have to take and pass the same tests -- written, psychological, medical and physical. And once you get in the field, a lot of determination and mind-over-matter goes a long way."

Providing mentors throughout the application process has also helped more women complete the eligibility process, Thomas notes. But taking advantage of such opportunities requires women to apply.

"Not a lot of women want to do this type of work, but those who want to and are capable are welcome," Jones says.

And this might be the best time to find out. There are currently 13 openings in the city's fire bureau, and there could be more by the time the physical exams start in April.

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