- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2001

Female firefighters who work out of Engine Co. 33 in Anacostia by no means fit the stereotype of such women as tough-minded macho recruits.They are a cool bunch, to be sure. And they certainly look tough in uniform — regulation navy blue cotton shirts and trousers, over which they don 50 pounds of heavy-duty insulated outerwear, oxygen tanks, boots, helmets and gloves when racing off to a fire. Fitness training is routine and fire stations are equipped with apparatus for that purpose, but even so, the women dont give the impression of having to prove themselves in any way.

Quite the opposite. Given hazardous duty and heart-rending scenes they encounter in the course of their job, they seem unnaturally calm and even jolly. Asked why they joined such an incendiary profession, they answer almost to a one: "because of the money."

Heroics apparently come second in their mind to economic independence.

A young woman of 19 (the minimum age to apply) who completes the three-month course at the District´s Fire Department training academy at 4600 Shepherd Parkway NW can start at $34,000 — not bad for a high school or general equivalency exam graduate. The local firefighting force, which includes 62 women out of a total 1,250 (an additional 600 are members of emergency medical crews and staff), are just under parity with police where pay is concerned, according to Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the firefighters union.

Other motives are involved, too.

Sgt. Shelly Nickelson, 39, of Waldorf, Md., one of three female sergeants on the force and the person second in command at Engine Co. 33 these days, was a physical therapist in a doctor´s office working without benefits in an all-female office when she decided on a career change.

"I did a complete 360-degree turn. I was tired of the nit-picking and back-stabbing — and then found men gossip worse than women, " she laughs, adding that "nothing is secret in a firehouse."

Darlene Brown, 31, a pint-sized 11-year veteran who joined the department as a cadet just out of Ballou High School, confesses that the job also was a way for her to "give back to the community" where she grew up and feel good about herself.

"A lot of people look up to us, " she says. "I feel important."

The mother of children aged 4 and 11, Ms. Brown says she likes her unusual working hours. A sister helps her out at home. Job benefits include meals (often cooked by the men), cable television, and a bed in the large open room where firefighters sleep on assigned beds between calls. They supply their own bed linens, stored in individual lockers when not in use. A pingpong table is set up at one end of the fire station dormitory.

"Pound for pound, Ms. Brown is one of the best you can have, " Lt. Sneed boasts of the petite, 133-pound Ms. Brown, making an example of the fact that neither size nor sex need be a handicap. Rules specify only that a person´s weight be proportionate to body size.

"I told her, 'You have the heart of a lion.´ "

It may take a lion´s heart, but a strong back and stomach also are essential.

Ms. Brown has grown accustomed to having onlookers stare when they spot the 5-foot-2-inch mother of two driving a 25-ton ladder truck through city streets at high speed. She also climbs up to rooftops. Shimmying down the 30-foot brass pole from the company´s second-floor sleeping quarters to trucks on the ground floor no longer bothers her, either.

"I was afraid of heights when I started, but the fear is gone from training so much, " she says.

Qualifying exams have candidates lugging round a 100-pound dummy, lifting hoses and hauling ladders. The number of female firefighters has dropped since this physical agility test was introduced, but conflicting demands of motherhood also have taken their toll, says Mrs. Nickelson, who is in charge of women´s training for the department.

Contributing to the problem is a relative lack of facilities to accommodate women in older fire stations, she adds.

Maternity leave isn´t offered. Nor can pregnant women be told not to work. "We try to get them to go onto light duty, " says Mrs. Nickelson, whose job on occasion involves finding appropriate maternity gear. "It´s a chance they are taking, with your big belly sticking out and breathing in all those noxious fumes."

The married couples in the department may work in the same fire station but they are not allowed to be on the same shift.

Mrs. Nickelson had been a firefighter for two years when she married Bryan Nickelson, a member of the Capitol Hill Police. He thought when their children were born that she should consider only day work. She stayed the course, which has men and women alike working a shift of 24 hours followed by three days off. That meant she would be home after an all-nighter, getting only snatches of sleep at best, and deal all the next day with wide-awake children. Her sons, 11 and 12, think her work is "exciting, " even though she agrees that "seeing women on fire trucks is still shocking to people."

She smiles in a bemused way when asked to explain her congenial low-key manner. How does she sustain such an attitude?

"It´s determination. And not letting things get to you," she says.

Last month, she and a male colleague rescued three children between the ages of 7 and 12 trapped in an apartment building blaze, kicking in doors as they went. More often, her crew is called out to fix a leak in a water main or take someone to the hospital.

"It´s a good thing when a woman is in charge — people who think outside the box, " says an Engine Co. 33 male firefighter who asks for anonymity when he suggests that women are better at avoiding what he regards as prejudicial attitudes "typical of the 1970s."

The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is often under verbal fire, with criticism and lawsuits stemming from inside and outside the force. Deputy Chief Beatrice Rudder, the first female firefighter and now the highest ranking woman in the department, went to court in the early 1990s to charge unfair administration of a promotional exam that she felt discriminated against employees on the basis of race. She lost the case but went on to become captain.

Currently, five female EMS supervisors are suing the fire department over an anonymous newsletter that they charge contained racist and sexist remarks about women in the department.

"We´ve lots of employes here, lots of personalities. We are a microcosm reflective of our society," says Ms. Rudder, 47, disagreeing diplomatically with any general characterization of female firefighters.

It´s certainly true that the women´s backgrounds are diverse. Engine 33 probationary firefighter Shanita Johnson, 28, for example, was a qualified plumber before applying to the academy.

Ms. Rudder, an American University graduate, hoped to one day go to medical school. She was working as a lifeguard at the Capitol Hill Natatorium — "hourly wages only," she says — when she was hired as a firefighter in 1978. She met and married her husband in the department.

The needs of her young son took precedence over a chance to be interviewed for the chief´s job not long ago. These days, as the official in charge of the department's professional standards, hers is a desk job that consists of "one project after another." Where once upon a time she occasionally suffered from burns on the job, Ms. Rudder´s wounds today are from an operation for carpal tunnel syndrome caused by a computer keyboard.

Yet she admits she misses action in the field and "sometimes dreams about what I used to do." The camaraderie, she says, "you can´t find anywhere else."

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