Rosemary M. Cloud

(WOMENSENEWS)–Though still a small percentage of the nation’s 293,600 career firefighters, women’s ranks have grown from virtually nothing 10 years ago to about 6,200 today. A handful even head large city departments. But despite these advances, female firefighters say a traditionally macho culture still sends women an unwelcome signal.

Colleen Walz, a battalion chief in the Pittsburgh Fire Department and a 17-year veteranof the fire service, says this culture makes recruiting and advancing women an uphill battle.

“We have 20 women out of a staff of 840,” said Walz, who heads the department’s training division. She says none has moved beyond the entry-level rank of firefighter. “It’s been slow, limited progress and my impression is that it’s a huge battle for women to be accepted, what with all the negative attitudes. Only one woman has been added to my bureau in the last 10 years. It’s frustrating.”

Breaking into the Ranks

Rita B. Wessel, who has 35 years in what she calls “the business” of firefighting, including U.S. Air Force service, assistant chief at the Pittsburgh International Airport and roles in various local departments, is now a curriculum specialist at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy, Lewistown, Pa. Wessel says deep-seated cultural biases prevent more women from joining up.

“It stems from our culture–women just don’t do this,” she said. “We’re getting away from that. Women I know who have been successful in the business had parents who supported them in entering a nontraditional field, to think outside the box.”

She added that male firefighters are reluctant to let women take over difficult and dangerous work that they regard as masculine in its nature. “Men have a very large ego invested in the business . . . So when anything happens that impacts their ‘corner on the market,’ they tend to feel threatened.”

But Wessel emphasized that despite the stereotypes that women aren’t strong enough to endure the physical rigors of firefighting, female recruits are expected to pass the same tests and perform the same drills as men.

That may be, but others say its not about passing the tests. While few male officers ever say that women just don’t belong, many believe that having women in the firehouse douses the family code of “we sleep together, we socialize together and we put our lives on the line as a team,” said Michael Servello, a retired deputy chief in the Hartsdale, N.Y., department.

Climbing the Ladder

Rochelle “Rocky” Jones, a veteran member of the New York Fire Department, a battalion chief and the highest-ranked woman in the 138-year history of her department, emphasizes the positive developments for women in her area of the field. Despite there being only 24 career women out of a total of 11,500 in the department, she was elated that the NYFD Training Facility has recently graduated four women, the most in a single class.

“When I began, it was difficult for a lot of women to join,” she said, “but that’s been over with for many years now.”

Nationally, growth of career members–meaning paid firefighters as opposed to volunteers–who are female has been at 200 to 300 a year over the past decade, according to Terese M. Floren, cofounder and executive director of Women in the Fire Service, Inc., a Madison, Wis., research and advocacy organization. Floren was one of the first women to become a career firefighter back in the 1970s.

Floren says that many women have done well enough to land the top job. There were 14 female chiefs at last count out of a total of 30,000, according to International Association of Fire Chiefs, based in Washington, D.C. Some of them led fairly large departments, such as Cobb County, Ga., with 600 career personnel; Prince William County, Va., with 218; Madison, Wis., with 270; and Tacoma, Wash., with 430. Several hundred more are lieutenants or captains and about 80 are assistant chiefs.

Among the 14 chiefs is Rosemary Cloud, who heads the 100-person East Point, Ga., department, in suburban Atlanta. Sworn in May 2002, Cloud is the first black female chief in the United States with 22 years of service in the field. She describes her climb up the career ladder as arduous, marked by what she describes as hostility from without and self-doubt from within. Being a woman was difficult enough, but being a woman of color was even harder in the historically white, male-dominated craft.

Bored with a legal assistant job, Cloud joined the Atlanta department in 1980 and waited 10 years for her first promotion, to fire-truck driver, a first step up the career from firefighter. Cloud’s journey up the ladder was not without moments of self-doubt.

“Becoming chief, of course, means you have really ‘made it,'” she said at a seminar last year. “But at the top of my personal achievement list is still the day when I took the exam for driver. I walked into the exam room and saw something like 300 men waiting to take it. I almost turned around and went home. But I didn’t and, frankly, have never been more proud of myself.”

David Gottlieb is a free-lance writer in Scarsdale, N.Y.