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Good News, Bad News for FDNY Women?

Brenda Berkman FDNY

Information about women firefighters in the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) invariably has a kind of “good news, bad news” quality to it.  In 1982, 40 women became the first women to be hired as FDNY firefighters after the FDNY hiring procedures were found by a court to be not job-related.  Subsequently, most of those women were subjected to repeated acts of sexual harassment and discrimination including death threats, tampering with protective gear, sexual assault and more.

As time passed, some of the original group of FDNY women firefighters earned promotions – one rising to Battalion Chief, several to Captain and Lieutenant.  Various improvements were made in women firefighters’ working conditions including gear that actually fits.  At the same time, very few women were hired to replace the first women.  It took ten years to hire the next one.  By the time the original group of women -- almost all of whom stayed on the job despite the harassment -- reached retirement eligibility in 2000, there were only about 20 women firefighters left – half the number hired two decades before.  Today there are 34 women in a firefighting force of approximately 10,500.

On July 22, 2013, a milestone was reached when 9 women entered the FDNY Fire Academy – the largest number in one training class since 1982.  This class of 9 women and 311 men represents less than 3 percent women.  Yet the continued employment of these nine women is now threatened by the FDNY’s constantly changing training school requirements, which the Fire Department has once again failed to show are job-related.  

Good news, bad news.  When will the FDNY finally recognize the benefits that women firefighters bring to the organization?  When will women truly have equal opportunities to excel as FDNY firefighters?  These 9 women and the hundreds of other women candidates who are on the list waiting to complete the hiring process deserve a fair job-related hiring, training and evaluation process so they can serve their communities as firefighters.  Otherwise, it will be more “good news, bad news” from the FDNY.

// Brenda Berkman served the City of New York for 25 years before retiring in 2006 as a captain in its storied Fire Department. Photo: NY Daily News via Getty Images //