How women are helping other women become firefighters in New York City

Posted by
Moya Crockett
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Firefighting remains very much a man’s world. In Britain, only five women have ever lasted more than 30 years in the fire service, and just 7% of firefighters are female. The situation is much the same in the US, where female firefighters currently make up less than 1% of the New York Fire Department (FDNY) – a meagre statistic that was recently noted “proudly” by the city’s Fire Commissioner as a sign of increasing diversity.

But across the pond, female firefighters are striving to help more women make it into the force.

According to a report by Jezebel’s Kate Dries, women currently serving in the fire service in New York are training other women to prepare for the FDNY’s entrance exams.

United Women Firefighters (UWF) has teamed up with the Fire Foundation, the New York Women’s Foundation and New York Sports Club to provide aspiring female firefighters with “year-round, thrice-weekly” workouts.

These are designed to get them ready for the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) – a gruelling hurdle that must be cleared before anyone can enter the force.  

Firefighting is an intensely physical job, and the CPAT is as tough as you might expect. Applicants must perform tasks such as climbing stairs, dragging fire hoses, carrying equipment, and performing search and rescue – all while wearing 60lb of firefighter gear, including a helmet and boots.

With this in mind, the women-only workouts run by the trainers at UWF are brutal. A sample session includes simulated firefighting drills (pulling a sled loaded with 170lb, for example), stair training in a 50lb weighted vest, and jumping jacks while holding a 20lb fire hose above one’s head.

Sarinya Srisakul, UWF president, runs the pre-CPAT workouts alongside trainer Anwar Hafeez and Fire Academy graduate Constance Fripp. Dries spent a day with the three women at New York Sports Club, and writes that she “was immediately struck by the camaraderie between these diverse women”.

She adds: “Watching these women support each other was the highlight of my week. They helped each other set up weights, assisted in pull-ups, gave each other training tips – all while listening to a very solid playlist of jams… It was probably the hardest workout I’ve ever seen”.

Even without taking the physical exams into account, the process of getting into the FDNY is awe-inspiringly tough – so it makes sense that entrants need all the help they can get to prepare.

The exams take place once every four to five years and come with strict eligibility criteria, meaning that applicants could get just one shot at passing. Only men and women between the ages of 17 and a half and 28 can apply, and they must pass a background check as well as medical, psychological and drug testing and a written exam.

Only after jumping all of these hoops do applicants stand a chance of being hired, and even then they still have to wait for a spot to open up, which can take years. Consequently, entry can be particularly difficult for lower-income women, who are less able to spare the time needed to invest in training.

All of which makes the UWF’s mission statement (“The object of this association shall be to unite in sisterhood”) uniquely empowering – and their ethos of helping other women make it in a male-dominated field completely inspirational.

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Contributing Women’s Editor at and Deputy Editor of Stylist Loves, Stylist's daily email newsletter.