Fire Dept. Blazes New Path to Female Recruits

Times Staff Writer

How do you woo a woman who is capable of carrying a 42-pound pack over a step 215 times in 10 minutes?

The Los Angeles City Fire Department is not exactly sure, but here's what they came up with for Saturday's female firefighter recruitment drive:

They rented the snazziest hall they could think of, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. They brought along a jazz trio and a singing fireman. Firefighter Tina Haro was there, dressed in a snug black skirt and high heels to show the guests that the department is "not just looking for big, burly women," as she put it.

Not One of the Guys

For two hours, department brass, recruiters and firefighters did their best both to entertain and to convince the crowd of about 500 that--as their flyer says--"You don't have to be one of the guys" to fight blazes.

"We had to market more for the women. We've never recruited this way before," said Capt. Russell Weck, head of recruitment guidance. When it was all over, guests and acquaintances came forth to congratulate Weck on the production, just as if it were opening night at the theater.

Recruiting men, said Weck, is no problem: They call a meeting in an unglamorous auditorium somewhere, a couple of hundred muscular guys show up to ask questions about benefits and sick days, and they've got numerous qualified candidates.

But lack of brawn has disqualified nearly every female applicant since the first woman made it as far as the city's recruit class in 1977, then failed the test requiring that she lift a 200-pound extension ladder.

The department thought it finally had solved the strength problem when, in 1983, it began offering women physical conditioning in preparation for the firefighter test. That program did yield the city's first two female firefighters, Joanne Cameron and Julie Gardner. Since then, however, only seven women have been added to the ranks of uniformed firefighters which number 2,700. "The program we've had is not working," said Inspector John Garcia. "We put thousands of dollars into training women who get terminated in the academy because of lack of strength."

Garcia is one of three recruiters now working full-time to find women with the requisite strength. Their strategy, he said, is to target women who have been involved in athletics for years. For the Pavilion engagement, they mailed invitations to nearly every gym and athletic club in California. They set up booths at weightlifting competitions and recruiters visited college teams and body-building hang-outs.

Pitching the Job

Firefighter Tina Haro said that her recruitment technique was to go to a place such as Gold's Gym, and single out a woman who she thought looked like a potential firefighter. Then she'd personally pitch the job. But you can't always spot a candidate, she said. Haro weighed only 125 pounds when she began the program (now she's up to 150 pounds). "You might not have looked at me two years ago and said: 'That woman could be a firefighter,' " she said.

Haro, 25, works at a fire station near Chinatown when she's not on recruitment detail. Like the other eight current city female firefighters, Haro has been athletic since she was old enough to run. She competed in high school track events, and later taught aerobics and participated in body building.

Those who enter the fire academy after training to pass the physical may have the strength to keep up initially, said firefighter Joanne Cameron, who was one of the first two women on the Los Angeles City Fire Department. But the constant and rigorous demands of the academy will quickly wear down anyone who doesn't have a long past involvement in athletics.

A 33-year-old mother of two daughters, Cameron grew up climbing trees and sawing boards to help build her family's house in New Jersey. She spent time with her father, she said, and from him learned to solve mechanical problems.

Cameron said that women who have participated for years in sports that require upper-body conditioning--such as paddling, kayaking, rowing or volleyball--are the best candidates for firefighter.

Many of those who showed up Saturday fit the description.

Marla O'Connell, a physical education teacher at Los Angeles Valley College, said she has been thinking about a career in firefighting since she learned she will be among those affected by recent layoffs at the college. She has the advantage of height (5 feet, 10 inches) and a lifetime love of sports. She coaches volleyball, basketball and swimming and has competed in volleyball.

Jennifer Reberger, 19, already works part-time hefting axes and fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service, so she knows she can handle the job. After listening to the recruitment revue on Saturday afternoon, Reberger's mother was convinced that the L.A. City Fire Department would be a good employer for her daughter. She isn't worried by the dangers Jennifer could encounter on the job, said Leona Reberger, of Apple Valley: "I've already gotten over the shock of her being a fireman."

Determined to Change

Sprinkled in among all the construction workers and marathoners were some women who have never been particularly athletic, but who are determined to change for the chance of being firefighters. Rose Insua, 18, of West Covina, said she was so inspired by the thought of such a career that she has danced her way through two aerobics classes.

Joanne Cameron gave an on-stage demonstration of some tests the women could take to determine whether they were anywhere near ready to pass the fire department physical. Among the tasks, a candidate should be able to complete one curl with an 85-pound barbell, do four pull-ups and at least one upright row with a 105-pound weight.

The department is so determined to hire more women that it will waive the written test for any woman who successfully completes the physical abilities test, said recruiter Garcia.

Of course, the job of a firefighter requires more than muscle. It helps to have a basic understanding of tools and mechanics. Capt. Russell Weck suggested that those women who didn't grow up helping their fathers or mothers fix the plumbing or repair the roof should study the Sears & Roebuck Catalog to learn about saws and screwdrivers. "Take an auto mechanics class," he suggested; "change the oil in the car."

Finally, the audience got to speak directly to a panel of seven female firefighters. The questions covered sleeping arrangements in a co-ed firehouse ("We don't sleep, we stay up all night and protect ourselves," joked Rosemary Nord) to regulation haircuts ("To sacrifice a little bit of hair is worth the rewards," Rosa Torres said) to adjusting to daily crises--Roxanne Bercik saw four fatalities on her first fire.

Someone asked, "How do you get to drive the truck?" (seniority is the determining factor), and someone else wanted to know if the female firefighters lamented their lost femininity in such a rough job.

Overboard on Clothes

Rosemary Nord explained that some of the firefighters go overboard on clothes and make-up when they're not working. While on duty, however, "You have to be prepared to look in the mirror and go " 'Ughh,' " she said. Nord explained that they may not wear make-up or jewelry during their 24-hour shift, and the helmets tend to leave unsightly creases in their hair. "When another task force comes by, you can't hide in the back and go 'Oh, I don't want those boys to see me,' " Nord advised.

Los Angeles Fire Chief Donald Manning said that his department is "under no court order and no mandate" to recruit female firefighters but that the department feels the times demand it.

"Obviously what we're trying to show (with Saturday's event) is that it's an important job, a prestigious job," he said. "Firefighting ranks with the most honorable of professions, because it's about helping people."

Honorable the profession may be, but it's still stubbornly male-dominated, said L.A. City Fire Commission President Aileen Adams. There are only two other professions--garbage collecting and mining--that have been so slow to include women, she said.

"There's a mind-set that still has to be broken," she said. "We'll probably need to do this (staging recruitment shows) for several more years down the road."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World