Women in LAFD
While some may consider fighting fires to be a man's job, women have served as firefighters around the world during various times in history when the need arose due to war, illness, or other natural disasters. As long ago as the bucket brigades of the 19th Century, women have bravely played an important, if sometimes invisible role, in firefighting.
One of the first documented US female firefighters was an African American servant in the early 1800s named Molly Williams. She was part of Oceanus Fire Company No. 11, a volunteer fire company in New York. She distinguished herself when the volunteers desperately needed her during a blinding snowstorm in 1818, as many of the volunteers were ill with influenza and unable to help. She helped the volunteers by jumping in and dragging the heavy pumper engine through the snow, and then helped pump the water from the pumper that was brought by the bucket brigade from the nearby river. After the fire was out, the fire captain said Molly was "as good a fire laddie as any of the boys!" She was known the rest of her life as Volunteer No. 11.
No doubt many of the names of women firefighters in the 19th and early 20th centuries have simply been lost to the historical record, but we do see glimpses of individual women firefighters in New Jersey and Connecticut during those years. Girton Ladies' College in Great Britain had an all-women's fire brigade from 1878 until 1932. Between 1910 and 1920, women's volunteer fire companies functioned in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Los Angeles, California.
Women were an integral part of the fire service during WWI and WWII. During WWII, many women across the country entered the volunteer fire service to take the place of men who had been called into the military. In fact, two military fire departments in Illinois were staffed entirely by women for part of the war.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it became illegal for fire departments to prevent women from applying for jobs as firefighters. Yet, women who answered the call still struggled! They had to overcome ill-fitting equipment, derision from male colleagues and outcast status in the firehouse. In spite of these issues, women have continued to make great strides in the profession since the days of the bucket brigades.
1973 and 1974 marked the entry of three women into fire suppression roles on a paid basis. The first women we know of to be paid for fighting fires in an urban setting was Sandra Forcier, who was hired as a Public Safety Officer (a combination police officer and firefighter) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in July of 1973. The following March, Judith Livers was hired by the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia and became the first woman career firefighter in the world. Both women served full careers with their departments and retired at the rank of battalion chief. The first female fire chief in the United States was also appointed in 1973, when Ruth Capello became Chief of the Butte Falls, Oregon, volunteer fire department.
When the FDNY announced it was opening its firefighter exam to women, Brenda Berkman, who was in her third year of law school at the time, eagerly applied. While she passed the written test easily, she, along with 89 other women subsequently failed the physical portion. It was stated by an official that their physical test was "the most difficult the department had ever administered, [and] was designed more to keep women out than to accurately assess job-related skills." Berkman sued the City of New York for discrimination, and won, allowing her to become the first female to join the ranks of the FDNY in 1982. Berkman then founded the United Women Firefighters, an organization for women in the FDNY. Despite years of threats and harassment, Berkman persevered, and today, she remains an outspoken and respected advocate for gender equality.
Although women have worked in an administrative capacity with the LAFD for decades, the Los Angeles City fire department became the first fire department in the country to take over paramedic service for a city, and as a result when the county paramedic program graduated three women - Suzanne Tousseau, Sally Byrne, and Carlesta Johnson - they became first uniformed female members of the LAFD in 1978 – 45 years ago! This was the beginning of the LAFD setting the standard for paramedicine incorporated into the fire service. There were many women who came onto the LAFD and still currently serve as single function paramedics, ensuring that the citizens of Los Angeles have their medical needs met with the highest standard of care.
It would be another five years before the first two women went through a fire academy and became firefighters. In 1983 – 40 years ago, Julie Gardner and Joanne Cameron became the pioneers who blazed a path for all the women to follow and we stand upon their shoulders. They didn't have it easy with probations in old battalion 3, but they succeeded and helped mentor the women who followed.
Joanne became part of a program to prepare women for the job called FEET, Female Entrance Exam Tutorial in the late 1980s. This program incorporated workouts, oral interview preparation, and learning some of the ladders and tools and equipment of the job. Fast forward to today and that program is our CAPS fitness training program available to all who apply for the LAFD. During the FEET program a significant number of women were hired, some who have already retired but all who had successful careers. Some of these women include: Stacy Taylor, Karen Richter, Hollyn Bullock, Kathleen Scarvers, Paula Perry, Linda Cessor, Laurinda Meade, Sandra Smith, Michelle Banks, D'Lisa Davies, Karen Lasley-Slider to name but a few.
While Julie and Joanne never sought promotion within the department, there was one woman who paved the way in this regard, Roxanne Bercik. Roxanne took promotional exams and excelled. She promoted through the ranks of Fire Inspector, Captain I, Battalion Chief, Assistant Chief and retired as the Deputy Chief in charge of the Training and Support Bureau. What made Chief Bercik unique was her willingness to mentor other women who were seeking to promote. She set the bar for what was possible for women within the department and then reached back to bring others along with her. At the time of her retirement in 2014, she was the highest ranking female in the history of the LAFD.
In 2023, the U.S. Fire Administration reports that women currently account for 9% of firefighters nationwide. Women of the LAFD are proud to be among them, and we have many women who have been the "firsts" in many ranks within the department.
Currently within the LAFD, women perform at virtually all levels in the Department. We hold positions of Firefighter, Firefighter/Paramedic, Emergency Dispatcher, Engineer, Arson Investigator, Fire Inspector, Captain I, Captain II, Battalion Chief, Assistant Chief, Deputy Chief, and of course, our Fire Chief. In addition, women play integral roles as part of special operation teams that respond to emergencies across the nation and Incident Management Teams that coordinate citywide response and recovery under the direction of the Mayor. Interestingly, the majority of the 117 women currently on the LAFD have been on the job less than 7 years, so we know their future is bright for promotion, given the amazing female mentors who have come before them.
Beyond their first responder duties, women of the LAFD continue to serve our community through educational programs and youth mentoring programs such as the popular LAFD Girls Camps. Several of our female members are recipients of the Medal of Valor, Women of Courage, and Community Protector awards for outstanding community service.
In conclusion, it's important to acknowledge the singular acts of courage demonstrated by those trailblazing pioneers who opened the doors for women in the fire service almost 50 years+ ago. Their perseverance has had long term and far reaching social impact, and it was this pioneering spirit that led to the formation of Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service. We are hopeful that through continuing education, training and support, we will be able to increase the percentage of women on the LAFD... Because as our Fire Chief reminds us so eloquently, "if you can SEE her, you can BE her!"