For the first time in its history the D.C. Fire Department will be able to hire female firefighters when eligibility testing for firefighters resumes this month after a two-year freeze.
The testing has been suspended because of a long waiting list for firefighting positions, which pay $12,890 to start. It is being resumed because the current waiting list has been exhausted, according to a statement by Fire Chief Burton W.Johnson.
Men or women who meet requirements and score 70 or above on the general knowledge test are to be considered for the 51 firefighting vacancies in the department, and another 49 vacancies which are expected in the next year, according to Diane White, a personnel management specialist and women's coordinator for the Fire Department.
Women are being actively recruited for the firefighting jobs, said White. "We have sent out notice of the exam to women's group around the area, and organizations which seek to put women into non-traditional jobs," she said. One Fire Department flyer circulating through various women's organizations last week said, "Women Firefighters - Why Not?"
"We are pleased to be able to re-open this opportunity for firefighting careers. We are also pleased to work with the Commission on the Status of Women to provide information and support to women who are interested in a new career in this field," the fire chief said.
The Fire Department will hold an information session on Friday from noon to 2 p.m in the auditorium of the Employment Security Building, 500 C St. NW. It will include a discussion of general requirements experiences of female firefighters in other jurisdictions. It is being co-sponsored by the District's Commission on the Status of Women, the Washington Urban League, the organisation of Black Activist Women and Wider Opportunities for Women.
The eligibility test will be offered Friday, Feb. 11, 1 p.m., at the Civil Service Commission, 1900 E St. NW. Applicants do not have to register in advance for the examination, but are asked to bring a completed federal employment Form 171 with them. Forms can be obtained at the Federal Job Information Center at the Civil Service Commission, or by calling 737-9616.
Testing may be closed after the first exam, Chief Johnson said, because a large number of applicants is expected. If a smaller number of people show up, however, the test will be offered the second Friday of each month until about 2,000 people have taken it.
Firefighters must be at least 20 years old and not older than 29 when they are sworn in. They should have a high school diploma or equivalency diploma, or have served for at least a year as a paid firefighter in a city of 500,000 or more residents, according to the Fire Department.The applicants must also be in excellent physical health.
Although the department has dropped its previous requirement that prospective firefighters must be at least 5-feet-7 and weigh at least 145 pounds, applicants must be of an acceptable weight in proportion to height and age, according to Francis X. Flasherty of the Fire Department's communications office. For example, the acceptable weight for a 6-feet, 20-year-old man is 162 to 187 pounds, he said. A 29-year old man of the same height could weigh as much as 196 pounds. Similarly, a 20-year-old 5-feet-7 woman should weigh 118 to 140 pounds, or a 29-year-old woman of the same height could weigh up to 171 pounds, he said.
Although women must be considered for firefighting jobs according to the District's Human Rights Law (Title 34), which prohibits sex discrimination in hiring, the fire Department's "rules and regulations state...that you must be male," White said. She said a requested revision of the department's rules was sent to the City Council "a number of years ago," as part of a whole package of updated rules and has not yet been acted on. However, "there's no way that we can enforce the rule now because it's illegal," White said.
Only six women have ever applied for the approximately 1,300 firefighting jobs in the District, according to the women coordinator. Three of those women were sent notices that they were being considered, and never responded, White said. The other three were temporarily rejected for medical reasons, White said, and never came back for further consideration. "There was no followup on why they never returned."
If women want to become firefighters, White said, they "will be expected to do the same things as men. They will be hired in the same way, go through the same training school curriculum, and have the same probationary year requirement. There'll be no exceptions made for women," she said, but "certain situations... will have to be dealt with on individual basis. "If they become pregnant, women would have to go on maternity leave without pay.. or take sick leave," White said. New firefighters get about 13 days of sick leave annually and 13 days of annual leave, along with six rotating "Kelly days" off every nine weeks.
White said any problems that could result when women are hired as firefighters, who work an average of 48 hours a week, are not the kind "that can't be overcome."
At the Engine One company at 23rd and M Streets NW, male firefighters were most concerned with where the women would sleep when they worked the rotating shift 6 pmto 8 am. shift, and which bathroom they would use.
But White said seven of the newest fire houses, where most new firefighters are stationed during their first year, are equipped with more than one bathroom and some kind of partitions in sleeping quarters could be easily arranged.
Most of the men interviewed about the prospect of women as firefighters began by saying things like "Let's face it, there would be problems. You have a lot of language around here." Or they would giggle and make vague statements like "Men are men and women are women."
But when asked how if they thought women could be effective as firefighters a common response was "let 'em try."
"As long as they can do the job," firefighter R.A. Cuccherini, 32, said, they're welcome. "If they can go through the training school like anyone else, more power to them."
Cuccherini also said that if his daughter, who is now 9 years old, wanted a job as a firefighter someday, he would oppose it. He said he would also encourage her not to take a job as a cocktail waitress in a bar where drunken patrons might hassle her. His basic reason for not wanting her to take either job was a lack of respect it might subject her to. He said that lack of respect wouldn't necessarily come from men who work in the Fire Department. "From the mayor's office on down . . . people could not care less what he'll happens to us out here," Cuccherini said. He said he wouldn't encourage a man to take a job as a firefighter either.
Lt. H.L. Schneider said he had "one objection - women are smaller than men and we would have a helluva time getting gear to fit them." He also said women don't have "the upper body strength of men."
Most of the firefighters interviewed disagreed after Schneider left the room.
"I don't see where the size makes any difference." said firefighter William F. Hyde, 40, a 12-year Fire Department veteran who called himself the grandfather of the group."
"If they can make a face piece for a man, they can make one for a woman," Hyde said. Then he laughed with some other firefighters in the room when they remembered a fellow worker who has a severly protuding chin. The man has never been able to get his face mask properly sealed to keep the smoke out, they said, and they've managed to overcome that in their work.
Hyde expressed concern that "sexual type things" could make the firefighter's job more difficult when women are hired. "You're going to have it in any job," Cuccherini responded.
Hyde concluded that "it wouldn't bother me" if women began working with him. "There's going to be the some that can do it," he said.
Another firefighter who has been with the department only three years, said it would be favourism if women got private sleeping quarters in the fire house, which has five bedrooms already. "That dosen't really seem fair," said John McDonald. "I'd like to have my own room (but would have to) go to the trouble to get promoted" to get it. At the Engine One, the firefighters sleep in a very large, sterile green room, with 18 cots in neat rows on the tiled floor. Officers sleep in separate, more private quarters.
"I don't think there's that many women can make it all the way through training school," McDonald said. But later, he offered another opinion. "If she's been through (training school), she'd be as good as I would."
Women hired as firefighters will be given special tresaid at first, whild they learn the ropes from experienced firefighters, the men said. So will men. McDonaldsaid he followed his instructor around "like a little puppy dog" when he was first hired. "You'd get yourself k illed or hurt someone else " if you didn't, he said.