A crowd of more than 300 people, the majority of them young black women, came to a sixth-floor conference room in the Employment Security Building last week to find out what they had to do to land one of 51-firefighting jobs that are open.
"What are all these women doing here?" asked a young men. He apparently didn't know the informaltin session was sponsored by the Commission on the Status of Women, the Washington Urban League, the Organization of Black Activist Women and the District Fire Department, to encourage women to apply. "They're trying to find a job like anybody else," explained a man sitting next to him.
Many of the women interviewed agreed. None of them appeared to be seeking the heretofore male jobs for purely feminist reasons. Women and man with varied backgrounds and job experience listened eagerly as D.C. Fire Chief Burton W. Johnson told them: "We could conceivably hire upaards of 100 people (by the end of this year.)"
He encouraged "all of you - male or female alike" to take the firegighters' eligibility test, which will be given Friday at 1 p.m. at the U.S. Civil Service Commission, 1900 E St. NW.
The general knowledge test is a prerequisite to consideration for the fire-fighting jobs, which pay a starting salary f $12,890, with optional retirement after 20 years at 50 per cent of salary. The test is basically designed to test reading and decision making, and takes approximately three hours, a fire department spokesman said.
In order to take the written multiple choice test, applicants must bring a completed Standard Form 171 with them. That form is available at the Federal Job Information Center, U.S. Civil Service Commission, 1900 E St. NW. A score of at least 70 on a scale of 100 is necessary to pass the test.
Firefighters must also take a free physical exam, given by the Board of Police and Fire Surgeons. They must be in excellent physical condition, and vision must be at least 20/40, correctable to 20/20 with glasses, according to the fire department.
Applicants must be between 20 and 29 years old, and must have a high school diploma or equivalency, or should have served for at least a year as a paid firefighter in a city 500,000 or more residents. In addition, they must pass a character investigation. Those accepted to the department go through a rigorous 45-day training school in Southwest Washington.
Chief Burton said he didn't know if the average woman can make it through the training program, because no women have ever gone through it. But, he said, "no more than three (men) for any 100-member group have failed the training to date."
After watching a film depicting the firefighter's job, and hearing it described as "hard, trying job" wich required people with the ability "to withstand the gruelling heat, smoke and fumes," the women at the imformation session were told "it might be hard to break the ranks (of male firefighters) and become accepted."
The Fire Department's women's coordinator, Diane White, said the women "might need to be better than men" at first, but "once they have demonstrated they can perform on an equal basis," they will be accepted.
Ethel Sharpe, a Northeast Washington woman who has been unemployed for the last year, said she isn't afraid of the risks involved in firefighting. "To me, the whole world is a risk," she said. "If a woman puts her mind to it, she can do anything she wants."
For Valerie Blount, a 25-year-old mother of three, the exam is a chance to get her "first real job." She said simply, "I need the employment."
A former high school cheerleader, Elizabeth Pickrell, 24, of Alexandria, has had a variety of jobs, from governess in France to housepainting in college. She said she would be taking the test because "I would like a job where it's not routine." The firefighters' salary also interest her, along with "the idea of team work," she said.
Preschool teacher Gwendolyn Lee, 26, of Northwest Washington, said firefighting offers "better job security" than teaching. She has been a teacher for two years, and said she could make at least$2,000 a year more as a fire-fighter than as a teacher.