When Maria Catala saw the dark blue Harley-Davidson decked with sirens and police lights parked in front of the Virginia State Police's Fairfax County office, she felt like a kid again.
"Could you turn on the lights?" the Manassas resident and mother of a 5-year-old son asked Trooper William Rowlette as she reached out to touch the chrome bars. "How about the sirens? How loud do they get?"
Then Catala, 26, began to ask Rowlette the serious questions. What do you do when it gets really cold? How about when it's really hot? Do you get to wear short sleeves?
That's the way it went for Rowlette and nearly a dozen other troopers who showcased their jobs recently at the first career day designed especially for women at the department's Northern Virginia headquarters on Braddock Road.
Catala, who has been a stay-at-home mom and is looking for a career in law enforcement, was one of 44 women who attended the job fair, which included a briefing by female troopers about their careers, what opportunities are available and what it takes to become a trooper.
Of the 1,840 sworn uniformed Virginia State Police officers and investigators, only 65 are women, or 3.5 percent of the force. There is only one female trooper in Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties. Prince William County has the largest number of female troopers in the area--three.
The dearth of women in its ranks prompted the department to begin hosting job fairs specifically for female prospects, said Col. M. Wayne Huggins, who heads the department.
"We tried a number of things to boost women troopers, but it has been a challenge," Huggins said. "The fairs have not only helped draw more women troopers, but the quality of women interested in law enforcement seems to be better."
Since the fairs began last month--first in Richmond and then in Chesapeake--about 150 women have applied, more than double last year's pool of female applicants.
The fair in Fairfax, the last of the events this year, drew residents from as far as Chesapeake. And among them were a professional actress and a Marine.
Amy Saikowski, a 21-year-old senior at George Mason University, came to the fair without telling her mom, who she says is not likely to be happy about her exploring a career as a trooper.
"She wants me to get a master's degree or pursue something that's safe," said Saikowski, a Springfield resident. "But I've always enjoyed classes in abnormal psychology and would love to be an investigator."
D.D. King, one of the most senior female troopers on the force, said she was encouraged by the numbers at the fair.
King recalled that when she became a trooper in 1981, she could count the number of other female troopers on one hand. The first female Virginia trooper was hired in 1976.
"There were probably three or four others," said King, who is a canine handler and investigates drug activity along Interstate 95.
The women who apply and are selected would start their 31 weeks of academy training in May 2000 and begin work later that December. The starting annual salary would be $28,992, with a 22 percent pay differential for troopers working in Northern Virginia.
The department has received 900 applications for the year 2000 academy and expects to have about 1,300 applications by tomorrow's 5 p.m. deadline.
Only about half are expected to meet the minimum requirements and survive an extensive background check. Qualified applicants must be at least 21 years old, must have a high school diploma and must not have been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor, including domestic violence.
Of the 600 to 700 applicants who make the initial cut, only about 10 percent will survive the next battery of tests, including a polygraph, medical examination and physical and psychological tests.
When the 100th class of the Virginia State Police Academy begins May 10, it will include only 70 to 80 cadets, who will be required to live in the barracks from Sunday evenings to Friday afternoons, with leave on weekends.
"As you notice, it is very military," King said, as she played a videotape of cadets learning how to march. "You will also be taught how to shoot. If you haven't picked up a firearm, don't worry. I never picked one up before I joined."
After the fair, Catala was more determined than ever to join the ranks of female troopers and to reach an additional goal--to be the only female motorcycle trooper in the state. The only other female trooper to ride a motorcycle recently transferred to another job.
"It's always been a dream of mine to be a motorcycle cop," Catala said. "I've always liked scooters and motorcycles because you can do more on them. It would be great if I could ride a motorcycle."