Emergency in NYC

Since September 11, few want to join New York's Bravest. Will the fairer sex ride to the rescue?
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The Independent US

When 343 New York firefighters lost their lives at the scene of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the city's grief and support for the emergency service was palpable on every corner. But attempts to encourage young recruits to join up have been the toughest in the city's history.

When 343 New York firefighters lost their lives at the scene of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the city's grief and support for the emergency service was palpable on every corner. But attempts to encourage young recruits to join up have been the toughest in the city's history.

As a result, the NYFD has responded with a recruitment drive deemed by traditionalists to be little short of rash: they are trying to bring in more women.

Despite being one of America's most liberal states - with a female senator in Hillary Clinton and young women far outnumbering the young male population - New York's emergency services have historically been a male preserve. Of its 11,376 firefighters (nicknamed New York's Bravest), women make up only 30. Yet, with thousands having retired from the department in the past few years, it seems that, officially at least, women will be warmly welcomed into the male world of the firehouse.

Brenda Berkman is the only female captain in New York's fire department. She has been with the fire service for 20 years, having joined in the first year that women were admitted, and is currently holding open days at the weekend and after work to try to tempt young women to join up.

"When they really need us, they will have us. In Iraq, the military couldn't survive without commissioning women, so now we have women in combat," says Captain Berkman, 53.

"We need new thinking and fresh enthusiasm. We need people from a variety of backgrounds to best serve the society we are living in. If we exclude 50 per cent of the population, we are automatically shutting out some people with enormous talent. That's stupid."

The group of women who turn up to the fire department's headquarters in Brooklyn one Tuesday evening is not large, but it includes some enthusiastic potential firefighters. Robin Hogan, 21, has been keen on getting into the service for several years, but has been held back for health reasons. She says that she is now fit and desperate to join up. "I've wanted to be a firefighter for ever. And this evening is about finding out how to go about it," says Robin, a native of the New York borough of Queens.

She is undaunted by the gender imbalance that will confront her should she succeed. "I like those odds. I get on with men better than with women. It is not that I don't like women, but I've worked in offices where it is all chatty and it is not for me. I'm drawn to physical work," she says.

Anaida Laboy, 25, from the Bronx, and Catherine Jackson, are also enjoying the get-to-know-you session. For Ms Jackson, who was 19 when she first applied to join the service and is now nearly 21, the prospect of making it causes her eyes to light up.

"I have applied to become both a cop and a firefighter, but I really want to be a firefighter," she says with a grin Both women have been through the selection process once, unsuccessfully. They failed on the demanding physical test that new recruits must score almost perfectly on, as well as taking a written exam.

The physical test is tough. Tasks such as forcing open a heavy door and running up stairs for five minutes have to be accomplished wearing a 40lb vest to represent the heavy clothing and boots worn when entering a burning building.

One of the women who has passed and is now a fully fledged firefighter is Tracy Lewis, 32, a native of Flatbush, Brooklyn. Ms Lewis has been a firefighter for five years; she was sent to Ground Zero after 11 months in the service. But as someone who has been the only woman in an entire fire station of men, she admits there can be sexism. The camaraderie was good at her old firehouse, but she has faced hostility at her new base which has been hard to deal with. "Some guys take the view that you took the test to get in, so there's no problem. But others don't want you there and don't think you belong. I'm waiting for someone to actually say I don't belong, because I would like to know what their reasons were," she says.

In New York, the department has traditionally been the preserve of the conservative Irish Catholic community, who have sent generations of sons into the service. They haven't contemplated encouraging their daughters to join up for the job, where pay starts at $40,000 (£21,000) and rises to $62,000 after five years.

While the sudden need for more firefighters in the past four years has started to make it easier for women to be accepted, Captain Berkman, a native of the tranquil Midwestern town of St Olaf, has been trying to break the old patterns for her entire career. Her father-in-law was lawyer to the firefighters' union and she qualified as a lawyer herself in New York, but was still attracted to the fire service. "I was interested in public service and in helping people in their greatest hour of need.

"I like the physical nature of the job and the opportunity to do different things," she says.

When the city of New York announced in 1977 that it would allow women to join, despite over 500 women turning up, everyone failed, including Captain Berkman. By then she was an immigration lawyer, and decided to sue the fire department for sex discrimination. It took four years, but she won.

As one of the women who brought the lawsuit, Captain Berkman was targeted once she did join - oxygen was drained from her air tank, and death threats were left on her answering machine.

Captain Berkman says that kind of behaviour is in the past. "For the overwhelming majority, when they find women can do what is required of them and sometimes more, they think the worries are unfounded."

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