A Woman Among Men: Female Firefighter Blazed A Trail The Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia was the first in the nation to hire a woman into a full-time position to fight fires. But women in that career remain under-represented, and the county is promoting the fire service to teenage girls, hoping they'll follow in Judy Brewer's footsteps.
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A Woman Among Men: Female Firefighter Blazed A Trail

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A Woman Among Men: Female Firefighter Blazed A Trail

A Woman Among Men: Female Firefighter Blazed A Trail

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Firefighting has long been dominated by men. Just ask Judy Brewer.

JUDY BREWER: When I applied at my local fire station to volunteer in Fairfax County, I was told essentially to go back to my kitchen; it was no place for a woman.

MARTIN: Judy Brewer didn't set out to break any glass ceilings. She just wanted to be a firefighter - and she made that happen in 1974. She joined the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia and became the first female career firefighter in the country. We'll hear more from her later, but first we're going to take you to an unusual summer camp and a small part of Judy Brewer's legacy.


MARTIN: This past weekend, a group of teenage girls gathered at the Fire Academy in Arlington, where Judy Brewer's picture hangs on the wall. It's Arlington County's first all-girls firefighting camp, and one of close to a dozen such camps like this for girls around the country. Sheryl Yamanaka is one of the camp mentors here. The girls ask her what it's like being a woman in this job and actually fighting fires.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Was it scary going into your first fire?

SHERYL YAMANAKA: Honestly, it's more of an adrenaline rush, so.

MARTIN: Nine girls attended the fire camp this summer. They range from age 13 to 18. We caught up with a few of them during a lunch break. Why did you want to come to this camp?

TARA CROSEY: Well, basically, my mom found out from the radio. She told me about it and I thought it was really cool, 'cause it's like kind of firemen and police kind of work together. So, I like the detective stuff like that. And I just wanted to show, like, that girls are, like, as strong as boys and girls can do what boys can do.

SHANNON KELLY: I actually wanted to be an EMT. So, I thought maybe if I start somewhere this is where I would start.

KAYLA ERLICH: I liked, some guys got calls when we were at the fire station to, like, they had to go on call and we got to watch them leave and get ready and everything. So, it was really cool.

MARTIN: That was Tara Crosey, Shannon Kelly, and Kayla Erlich. This kind of camp didn't exist for the women who work as firefighters today. Claire Burley has been with the Arlington County Fire Department for six years and she helped organize this camp. She says it's usually little boys who say they want to grow up to be firefighters.

CLAIRE BURLEY: They get little fire trucks as toys and girls never really get that kind of introduction. So, we wanted to get them thinking about it. Come play with us, you know, see what we do, see how many female firefighters are here and just kind of get an introduction to the fire service as a whole, maybe they'll start thinking about it as a career choice 'cause we need more women.

MARTIN: How many women are in the Arlington Fire Department right now?

BURLEY: We have 22 right now, out of over 300. So, it's not a bad proportion - nationally, we're a little ahead of most fire departments but it's still pretty small proportion. And it seems like newest recruit classes are actually getting fewer women, not more. So, the trend is coming away, so we feel like we need to do something more - get out in the community, talk to girls a little more about choosing the fire service as a career.

MARTIN: So, what's the curriculum? Do they learn anything technical?

BURLEY: They are going to learn a bit of everything. So, we're basically going to put them through typical days in the life of firefighter.

MARTIN: That means exercising, cooking their own meals, a little history lesson on fire fighting and then the big event: watching a real fire - seeing how it grows and changes and learning the best ways to put it out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Later that day, as promised, the campers watched as the firefighters set a small wooden structure ablaze out behind the academy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Air is going in. The flames are being sucked in. On the top half you see you see (unintelligible) it out.

MARTIN: One by one, the girls each picked up the huge fire hose and learned what it felt like to try to control the massive flow of water. It's 50 pounds of pressure, so one of the firemen stands behind to steady them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: So, just open up, crank it open a little bit. All right, now open it up all the way. There you go.

MARTIN: Normally, these hoses pump out at almost three times that force.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Do you feel that pressure going back and forth on there?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: My job is to keep you from having to feel all that pressure so you can actually move that nozzle around and aim it where you want to. If we didn't do that, then you'd have to do all that yourself.

MARTIN: Firefighting is intense, physical work. The girls at fire camp spend time carrying hoses, doing pushups and pull-ups and dragging 160-pound dummies around. It's part of the job that Judy Brewer remembers vividly. Brewer served with the Arlington County Fire Department from 1974 until 1999. When she retired, she was the first woman battalion chief in the country. Brewer said it was actually her husband who inspired to pursue firefighting.

BREWER: I had been helping my husband at the time prepare for his fire science degree. And I had read a publication called "America Burning" and was really struck by the pictures of the absence of children, say, in a crib. You would have a white spot where a baby had been removed after it had died from smoke inhalation. They would also have pictures of children that were hiding in a closet or under a bed or next to a bureau, because they didn't know what to do when they couldn't get out. And I just thought, boy, I'd really like to be able to do something to at least save somebody.

MARTIN: I wonder how your female friends responded to your career choice.

BREWER: Well, my friends were my sisters. I come from five girls and two boys in my family. So, they were extremely proud and, you know, they were my cheering section. I was organist at a church there in the Mount Vernon area. And a lot of the people from the church said how can you lower yourself to do this kind of a job? So, there were mixed feelings from people. My parents were proud of me and there were a lot of people that knew me that were very supportive.

MARTIN: Did you fellow firefighters question your presence on their team, or were they accepting?

BREWER: No, they were not accepting. When I first was hired, people were worried about different things. The one that they used the most as a reason was that they were afraid that I would compromise them in a fire by not being able to help them if they got into trouble.

MARTIN: And how did you prove them wrong?

BREWER: I continued to maintain physical shape and just figured that they would have to wait and see. I didn't have any concerns about me not being able to rescue somebody. So, my attitude was just keep plugging at it until people see that you can do the job.

MARTIN: How long did that take before you felt that you were part of the team?

BREWER: It took nearly two years...


BREWER: ...and then a cloud just lifted off my head.

MARTIN: You had a long career. I imagine you have a lot of stories. I wonder if there is a particular event that stands out to you.

BREWER: I think that the worst call that I ever had was the first major fire that I had as a battalion chief. And when I got on the scene of a house that was in full bloom - as we say - fire out of every window, a ladder had been burned in half that was put up to one of the windows. There was an 11- or 12-year-old boy who was trapped in that house. And the parents had come up to me and were pulling on my running coat to save this boy. And we had to get a water supply going and had to figure out how it was going to be safest for the firefighters to get in there. We moved as quickly as we could but we lost that boy, and that was the most significant call of my career.

MARTIN: It affected her and she had a hard time getting that particular fire out of her head. This was before fire departments started giving firefighters counseling about how to deal with the emotional stress of their job. That happened in the wake of a fatal airplane crash in 1982. Air Florida flight 90 crashed into a bridge in Washington, D.C. Judy Brewer's unit arrived on the scene.

BREWER: There were only, I think, five people who survived that, and I was the first on the scene on an ambulance. And it was dead silent, snow all over the place, and it was just very eerie. It had an impact on me that I didn't realize. And I broke down during an EMS meeting thinking about all the people that we could not save that were in the river.

MARTIN: Do you have a story of saving someone?

BREWER: I saved many, many, many people, especially as a paramedic. But the ones that stick with me are the ones that I couldn't save.

MARTIN: Even so, you have to hold onto something because you can't be distracted by those losses.

BREWER: No, you put them behind you, and you just keep saying, OK, I'm doing a lot of good. And you just keep moving forward.

MARTIN: That was firefighter Judy Brewer. She's retired now, and spoke to us from Memphis, Tennessee. You can see pictures from the girls' fire camp on our website, npr.org.


MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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