- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

MONTOUR FALLS, N.Y. - After strapping on a 50-pound vest, Julie Pisanello reeled in a fire hose, hoisted two ladders, whacked a sledgehammer a dozen times against a door-like simulator, crawled through a dark maze and dragged a 165-pound mannequin a distance of 70 feet.

The substitute schoolteacher is already a volunteer firefighter in suburban Albany. To join the mere 98 women who earn their livelihoods from firefighting in New York — a state with 20,000 career firefighters — she needs to demonstrate on-the-job dexterity.

“It’s so difficult,” Miss Pisanello, 21, said with a gasp midway through an eight-station course set aside especially for female hopefuls on a fall weekend at the New York State Academy of Fire Science.

It was when Miss Pisanello came to the final event — wielding a pike and hook atop a 6-foot-long pole to replicate pulling down a ceiling in a burning building — that she almost buckled.

“If she even drops that pole, she’ll fail,” said fire Lt. Donna Kubarycz, whispering running commentary from nearby.

Seeking to broaden a field still dominated overwhelmingly by men, the main firefighter’s union helped develop a Candidate Physical Ability Test in 1999 that reflects not just brute strength, but strictly job-related demands.

Miss Pisanello was not disqualified. Nor did she finish soon enough — she was about four minutes over the test’s cutoff time of 10 minutes, 20 seconds. But she came away encouraged.

Intent on building her strength and endurance through in-line skating, swimming, running and weight lifting, and improving her technique by routinely tackling hands-on drills at her volunteer fire station, she is confident she’ll be a full-time firefighter someday.

That would land her in rare company. Of the 275,000-plus career firefighters in the United States, only about 6,500 — or 2.4 percent — are women. That’s up from zero in 1972. Some 40,000 women serve as volunteer firefighters.

The third annual training camp at the Fire Academy drew 200 women. The state-sponsored sessions broke ground in bringing together female firefighters from around New York. “There was no forum for them to ever get to know each other,” said Jackaline Ring of the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control.

Similar programs designed to bolster the female ranks have since been tried in Pennsylvania and Illinois. Fraternal groups within professional fire departments also are striving to create recruitment, training and mentoring programs that better prepare women wanting to join up.

While some cities have broken the pattern, many others have nearly all-male forces. Only 26 of New York City’s 11,500 firefighters are women.

The barriers begin with tradition — one of the most physically demanding jobs retains a fiercely male culture — and female trailblazers who cracked the shell a generation ago have failed to win a transformation in many places.

In 1987, Lt. Kubarycz became the first female career firefighter in Rochester. One reason women are so rare in the ranks, the 45-year-old bodybuilder said, is stiff competition — “there are so many qualified men.”

The test offered by the International Association of Fire Fighters, which mimics the sequential order of battling a fire, “is not only standardized but fair” in assessing physical ability, said a union official, Rich Duffy. Its use must be accompanied by recruiting and mentoring programs aimed at increasing diversity “both in gender and ethnicity,” he said.

“They’re accepted because they have to be accepted, not because they are considered to be equal in their abilities,” Mr. Duffy said. “The men have to say, ‘Yes, there are women who can do the job and I wouldn’t mind trusting my safety to a female the same way I would to a male.’ ”

The union test is required across New York.

“People should be judged on their ability to do the job and not anything else,” said Richard Nagle, the Fire Academy’s director and a retired FDNY lieutenant. Still, he said he expects “a couple of generations” will pass before there are substantial numbers of female firefighters.

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