The selfie shows the department's longest-tenured women firefighters — Fire Capt. Jenna Graham, paramedic Alison Costello and engineer Patty Juergens — with big smiles standing alongside a department truck on March 1. The women don't typically work together on the same crew, but another firefighter's absence put the three on the same truck for the first time. Graham said she had to snap a photo of the special moment, which hadn't happened before in the department's 145-year history.
It's a little uncomfortable fielding a barrage of inquiries from the media, Graham told the Voice inside Fire Station 1 on Shoreline Boulevard, shortly before suiting up to respond to an emergency call. But she's made it a mission to use the moment of fame as a chance to show that women are just as capable as men of being effective firefighters, and that an all-women crew doesn't have to be an anomaly.
"For us, that's the most important part — this is something women can do," she said.
National statistics show women make up somewhere between 3.5 to 4 percent of firefighters in the United States, which can vary significantly from one department to another. The New York City Fire Department, for example, boosted its number of female firefighters to 87 last year, but that still makes up less than 1 percent of the department's immense staff.
Mountain View has five women firefighters today, with two more currently working their way through the lengthy recruitment process. If both join the department, female representation will jump to close to 10 percent. Although physical agility and strength testing can be seen as a barrier for women, the historic lack of interest in joining the fire service may have more to do with perspective: Women simply don't see firefighting as a career opportunity.
When Juergens and Graham both joined the Mountain View Fire Department in March 2000, they said they were the only women in the otherwise all-male workforce. Neither said they grew up expecting to become a firefighter, and both described career trajectories that had nothing to do with the fire service until after college. Growing up, Juergens said she liked the idea of being a firefighter but lacked a role model and gave up. By the time she started pursuing her EMT, she was already a mother and had to squeeze in classes during the evening. She was convinced she wouldn't make it through the department's probation period.
Costello said she wasn't dreaming of becoming a firefighter as a child. She received a degree in biology and spent time traveling before stumbling upon a job interview for a career in firefighting. She was 26 at the time and didn't have any of the required credentials, but had both a college education and an aptitude for sports and physical challenges. Today, she said she hopes to be be living proof that women and girls of all ages, backgrounds and sizes are capable of being firefighters.
"We're small women and we carry equipment that weighs more than us," she said.
To that end, women from fire departments throughout the Bay Area have rallied to launch a two-day camp that promotes firefighting as a career path teenage girls can pursue. Dubbed the NorCal First Alarm Girls Fire Camp, the event is staffed entirely by female firefighters, and runs attendees through everything from handling heavy hose lines, chainsawing holes for fire ventilation and smashing through heavy doors.
Jenn Panko, a 22-year firefighter and captain with the Santa Clara Fire Department, has been deeply involved in the camp since it launched last year, and told the Voice that it marks a good-faith effort to help fire departments, including her own, recruit staff that more closely reflect the demographics in the area. Along with women, she said most fire departments fall short on recruiting the demographics they serve.
While boys aren't barred from attending, Panko said they're really not the focus of the fire camp. Boys typically get plenty of encouragement to be firemen growing up, particularly through organizations like Boy Scouts, while girls are usually left out. Like the women in the Mountain View Fire Department, she said she had no prior exposure to the fire service before going to college.
"It's pretty rare to have a young girl who says she wants to be a firefighter, and we're trying to change that," she said.
Both Graham and Juergens were at the fire camp last fall in Fremont, where they showed off auto extraction techniques to teenage girls on the first day. Day 2 was all about forcible entry into a building, including use of the iconic firefighter's ax and a tool called a Halligan. Panko said it was an inspiring moment for girls, who got to see Graham creatively use every bit of her shorter size to take down the door.
"Jenna is amazing. She was showing them what it took, how aggressive and powerful to have to be to make that happen," Panko said. "She just had to go crazy on that thing, and it was so impressive and cool to see."
Panko said she had been on an all-women crew in Santa Clara for a couple of years earlier in her career, and that it was interesting to watch social media explode over what amounts to a one-day alignment in Mountain View's assignments. She said it's fortunate that a woman like Graham caught the inadvertent attention, since her charismatic and easy-to-befriend attitude makes her a great ambassador for women interested in the fire service. Like beating on a door with metal tools, she has a lot of guts and is willing to put hesitation aside, Panko said.
While it can be difficult for women to complete all the physical requirements to be a firefighter — a set of standardized measures called the Candidate Physical Ability Testing (CPAT) — the test is actually designed to even the playing field for women rather than have varying requirements from one department to another, Panko said. That doesn't mean the standards have been lowered, she said, but it means all the equipment and the conditions are consistent.
While Graham and Costello both admit that joining an all-male fire department wasn't easy at first — some fire stations didn't have bathrooms for women, for example — they say the culture has improved over the years and feels like a welcoming environment today. Wednesday, March 27, marked Graham's 19th anniversary with the Mountain View Fire Department, and she hailed the department's effort to increase diversity.
"This is a very special place," Graham said.
Panko said she believes things have gotten better since she joined her department in the late 1990s as well. She also recalled that women weren't comfortable using the common bathrooms at fire stations, and that female firefighters had to get "creative" until the facilities were upgraded to accommodate women.
She believes some of the positive changes being made in fire departments are coming from increased representation of women in high-ranking city positions.
"The recent movement in society around women and women's rights is changing the culture," she said. "More and more city managers and city council members are women, and they are more aware of women in their workplaces. They might ask their city 'How are you doing with workforce diversity?' or 'How are you doing with women in your department?'"
The next First Alarm Fire Camp will be held in Santa Clara on May 4 and May 5, and already has a waiting list. Anyone interested in attending can still apply at tinyurl.com/grlfire5, and will be given a priority spot in the next camp event later this year — likely located in Contra Costa County. Information for women interested in jump-starting a firefighting career is online at fctconline.org.
The Mountain View Fire Department is also joining other city departments in what's being called the #SheCan event, which aims to "enbolden the next generation of girls and women" by showing what it's like to be a woman in public service. The event will be held on Saturday, March 30, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Mountain View Police Department at 1000 Villa St.
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