The oldtimers, she said, tell her she has yet to see a "good" fire. They say, "Things aren't like they used to be in the old days of wooden ladders and . . .," she pauses trying to remember the rest of the phrase, "Wooden men?" she asks mischieviously.

In a little more than a year after becoming the first female firefighter in Washington, Beatrice Rudder, 25, says she has seen enough to know firefighting is the challenging career she hoped it would be.

Along with the challenges, said Rudder, has come her new-found respect for firefighting as a science and the assurance within herself and from others that she is doing a good job.

"I came on thinking I could do it and found that I could," said Rudder, an attractive woman who smiles easily. "I set a goal and went after it. My next goal is to become an officer."

Another help, she said, has been the assistance offered by colleagues who "bend over backwards to direct you the right way. That's what's helped me stay on the force."

Yet she also speaks hesitantly of the negatives: racial and sexual discrimination and unfair criticism from her detractors.

Until last week, Rudder was the lone female firefighter in a department of 1,450 men. Now firefighter Laura B. Samuel has been assigned to Rudder's company and firefighter Kim I. Mattox is expected to be routed there later, she said. The three women will work different shifts.

Rudder describes the first 15 months of her experiences in tones alternating between wide-eyed wonder and cool professionalism.

"The first big fire was downtown. It was a mutiple alarm, almost as big as the Kann's fire," she recalled. "I wasn't afraid. It was an exterior fighting job. You just stood outside and poured water on it."

The blaze lasted several hours.

More harrowing, she says, was her experience with a gas leak.

"We arrived at this gutted building where (someone) had wrenched the gas meter from the pipe. If there had been any sparks it would have blown up. I was told to run and get a spike."

She pauses for a moment, chuckling as she remembered the incident. Returning with the equipment, she said, "Here you are lieutenant. What do I do?" She was told to close the leak off.

"I started banging (the pipe) thinking, 'Oh, my God, don't let it blow up!'"

"Practically everything that's happened to me has gone through the entire fire department. Everyone knows what I've done by word of mouth." Sometimes, she said, events get misinterpreted.

At a fire on Clifton Street, she said, she "helped the lieutenant knock the fire down. I was behind him holding the hose.

"I went up and down those stairs several times," she says tiredly. "I was extremely excited and started breathing wrong . . . hyperventilating."

She became dizzy, she said, and sat down on a flight of stairs "for a second. A firefighter came down, saw me sitting there and started shouting 'She's sick! She's sick! The girl is sick!'"

Rudder paused. She told the firefighter she needed to catch her breath, she said. But her lieutenant ordered her to the hospital against her will.

A few weeks later, Rudder said, a firefighter approached her and gloated, "I guess you got your belly full. I heard you fainted at your first fire and cried about it."

What hurts, she said, isn't the misunderstanding about the incident but that the story was blown completely out of proportion.

"I get frightened but I expect that," she says. "I'm experienced enough to know the job is dangerous."

Fortunately, she has never been injured on the job, she said. "Not really. A spark here and there.Since that Clifton Street fire I've learned to control my breathing."

She said she entered the fire academy a year ago because she was a discontented swimming instructor whose dream of becoming a veterinarian had been thwarted by a lack of funds. She holds a biology degree from American University, which she attended on a full scholarship.

She became a firefighter, she said, because it presented a challenge and an upwardly mobile career. Still burning in the back of her mind, however, is the dream of becoming a veterinarian.

Rudder said she would encourage other women to become firefighters providing they possess the mental and emotional stamina to cope with the work pressures and prejudices.

"And you have to want to learn your job as well as the people who work with you," she added. "You will get some help. The first time someone told me I hustled too much I was shocked but pleasantly surprised. For a long time I didn't think I did enough. Now I know I do my share."

She thought a moment and her face lit up with the thought.

"That's what I want," she said. "I want to do my share."