'Taking the Heat': Fighting to Join the NYFD Brenda Berkman joined the all-male New York Fire Department in 1982 after winning a federal sex discrimination lawsuit. Now her fight and those of other female firefighters is the subject of a new PBS documentary, Taking the Heat.
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'Taking the Heat': Fighting to Join the NYFD

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'Taking the Heat': Fighting to Join the NYFD

'Taking the Heat': Fighting to Join the NYFD

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Brenda Berkman has been taking heat for 24 years in more ways than one. She was the first woman to join New York City's fire department and she has faced an epic struggle to gain acceptance and respect ever since. On Tuesday a documentary about Brenda Berkman and the other fire fighting women pioneers of New York City will air on PBS. It's called Taking The Heat. Brenda Berkman joins me now from our New York bureau. Hello.

Ms. BRENDA BERKMAN: (New York City Firefighter): Hi Debbie.

ELLIOTT: This is an amazing but very sad story. Call me naïve, but I was really surprised to see in this film just how violent the reaction was against women joining the fire department. Can you describe for us some of the things that you and the other women went through?

Ms. BERKMAN: Well, there were a number of very serious incidents that we had involving physical abuse, sexual assault, tampering with protective gear. There was also, you know, professional isolation, which while it's not a direct physical assault, we are in a very demanding and team oriented and dangerous profession. And for the women who first came on to not be treated like full members of the team, where, you know, some of the men, not all of them, but some of the men were not speaking to us or allowing us to eat with them or training us in any way, you know, weren't backing us up at fires in a couple of instances, that was very serious and very threatening.

And then people got death threats to their homes. They got pornography put up all over the firehouse. And so it was pretty intense.

ELLIOTT: One of your colleagues even tells the story of how the air was let out of her tank and she didn't realize it until she was there responding to a fire.

Ms. BERKMAN: Yes. I mean that wasn't a kind of thing that happened a lot but it did happen.

ELLIOTT: Let's listen to a clip of some of those firefighters who were so adamant about not wanting women on the force.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man #1: Having worked with several of them in my career, they were a liability. It's clearly a liability on the fire scene.

Unidentified Man #2: Bottom line, I don't think it's a woman job. It's a dirty job. It would be like me taking a job doing nails.

Unidentified Man #3: In my heart of hearts we are firemen, and we will be firemen until the day I go to my eternal reward.

Ms. BERKMAN: I always laugh at that nail quote. I figured if, you know, you could earn eighty thousand dollars a year doing nails, maybe you'd see more men doing nails. But you know, it raises very serious issues about how some male firefighters, and certainly not all male firefighters, identify their job totally with their being men. And that, you know, somehow in our society if women come into an occupation it lowers the value of that occupation in some way. I think, you know, some of the guys are genuinely afraid of that.

ELLIOTT: Now, in 1977 when you first applied to become a firefighter, you had a lot of other options out there. You had a Master's Degree in History. You were studying Law at the time at NYU. I'm curious, did you really want to be a firefighter or were you trying to make a point here.

Ms. BERKMAN: Debbie, geez. I hope that your listeners are convinced by the fact that I've done it for 23 years now that, almost 24 years, that in fact I really did want this job. The reason I love this job is because it gives me a chance to help other people in their most serious hour of need. When they can't think of who else to call they call, they call the New York City Fire Department.

I didn't really want to sit behind a desk my whole life. I enjoyed my practice of law, but when I won the lawsuit and I had the chance to join 41 other women in the New York City Fire Department, I took that chance. And I figured I could always go back and practice law if I didn't like firefighting. Obviously, I love firefighting.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk a little bit about that lawsuit that got you and this other women on the force. At the time, you know, the laws had changed in the nation so that discrimination was no longer legal. So the fire department had to let you all take the test to become firefighters. But what happened was, you argued that they made this test that totally was designed to cut you out.

Ms. BERKMAN: They not only made the test more difficult, and as the film points out, it was the most difficult test that the city had ever given for anything. But the degree of difficulty wasn't what we were challenging here. What we were challenging was the job relatedness of the test. What I brought my lawsuit about was I did not believe that the test actually tested for the abilities that are needed to be demonstrated by people who want to be trained as firefighters. And...

ELLIOTT: Like what?

Ms. BERKMAN: What the old test had was you had to take a 120-pound duffel bag and throw it up on your shoulder and run up and down a flight of stairs, three flights of stairs with it, within a certain amount of time. We don't do that. You know, Hollywood shows firefighting one way, the reality of the situation is really quite different.

If you were in a fire, you certainly wouldn't want a firefighter throwing you up on his or her shoulder up into the heat and fire, which is up in the top of the room. They're going to drag you out where it's safer, down by the floor. And then when they get you out to the stairs, a whole group of people are going to pick you up and take you down the stairs. That's the way that we perform the job.

And that's what the, you know, testing procedures should test for: dragging a hose, raising a ladder, dragging a dummy. That's what they came up with, that's the test that I passed. They used incumbent male firefighters to develop a new test. I and 40-some other women went into the fire academy together in 1982 and that's how we got on the job. Now, unfortunately, today we have only 31 women in a firefighting force of 11,500.

ELLIOTT: Why is that?

Ms. BERKMAN: Basically, after my group went in, in 1982, New York City did not hire another woman for another 10 years. And then they've been hiring in very small numbers. One of the reasons for the small numbers is the fact that not very many young women have been encouraged to apply to take the test.

ELLIOTT: But don't you worry, at some level, that seeing all the grief and harassment that you went through might turn some people away?

Ms. BERKMAN: Well, people have to realize that most of the worst of the harassment that we experienced early in our careers has stopped, all right? And in many places it never happened in the first place. You know, I'm not saying, and as one of the other women that's quoted in the films, we're not saying in this film that the fire service has become perfect for women, but it's certainly gotten better.

ELLIOTT: I need to ask you about September 11th, what so many of us think about when we hear New York Fire Department. Did 9/11 change things for the women of the New York Fire Department, after your efforts there?

Ms. BERKMAN: You know, we had 343 firefighters that sacrificed their lives on 9/11 trying to help their fellow New Yorkers. And I lost three men from my company and five total from my firehouse. And I had worked with about 250 of the men who were killed that day. It was a very, very traumatic time for all firefighters. But what happened, as the media started to spin out the story, where they were doing stories about the rescue dogs and every little aspect of the Trade Center tragedy, there was almost no mention at all of the many women rescuers who were at the Trade Center at the time of the attack, and in the many days thereafter.

And I was very disturbed by this because I thought it was a warping of history. You know, there were tremendous numbers of women down there. Not only a very large number of, you know, of us, percentage-wise, of our group of women firefighters; we weren't very many in number, actually. But a very high number of us, including myself, were down there on September 11th.

Fortunately none of us got killed. Two women police officers were, Kathy Mazza and Moira Smith, were killed performing their duties, and a woman EMT, Yamel Merino(ph), was also performing her duty. Those women were almost forgotten, in addition to all the women who were not killed. And that was incredibly hurtful.

ELLIOTT: Brenda Berkman, was there a point at which you and the 41 women who were in your class would sit and think, Why are we going through this? You know, we want to be in this job where we're going to be putting our lives at risk to help other people, yet they're putting us through this. Is this even worth it? I mean, I think my tendency might be to just, enough already.

Ms. BERKMAN: I mean, people obviously have those questions. There were a couple of women who dropped out of the fire academy very early on. But the shocking and surprising and really thrilling thing, and it shows, it should show people really how dedicated these women are and how much they loved what they were doing, was that almost nobody quit after they graduated from the fire academy. And, you know, we still have women from that group on the job today, even though we were eligible to retire about five years ago. So, that...

ELLIOTT: How many of you are left? Do you know?

Ms. BERKMAN: Right now it's six. Six of the original group are still on the job.

ELLIOTT: New York Firefighter Captain Brenda Berkman, now commander of Engine 239 in Brooklyn.

Captain Berkman, thank you.

Ms. BERKMAN: Thank you very much, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: The documentary about Brenda Berkman and the other pioneering women firefighters of New York City is called Taking the Heat. It will be broadcast Tuesday on PBS. To get a sneak preview, go to our Web site, NPR.org.

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