In challenging the assumptions that all firefighters have to be male, a core group of women are finding that teamwork—not brawn—helps overcome the natural differences between male and female strength.
Caline Friedli—who on Sunday was sporting 80 pounds of fire gear and different-colored nail polish on each finger—joined the Village of Mamaroneck Fire Department in 2004, when she was 18.
"I had been in the junior fire department for four years, so it was the logical next step," she said. "My favorite part of being a volunteer firefighter is the comaraderie among all of us, men and women. We're like a family."
Brianna Keesler is a third-generation female firefighter; she, her mother and father have all been members of the Mohegan Lake Fire Department. Keesler joined when she was only 16.
"After Brianna's class-1 training, she and I were called into a structure fire together," said Brianna's father, George. "It was her first actual fire, so working together was pretty special; having her with me was kind of exciting. I wasn't nervous because I knew she'd been well trained."
Both Brianna, as a participant, and her father, as an instructor, took part in Westchester County Department of Emergency Services' first-ever Women's Weekend, a 12-hour hands-on fire training course in Valhalla, meant to hone female firefighters' skills.
However, Friedli said she'd like to see some of the gear better tailored for women's different body shapes. For example, many women have to wear suits that are too wide in the shoulders to accomodate for their chests.
"The main reason we decided to hold this course was to enhance our female firefighters' abilities and give them the confidence they need when fighting fires in the real world," said Luci Labriola-Cuffe, Armonk FD's fire chief and training coordinator for Westchester County's Deptartment of Emergency Services. "Many people think women aren't as physically capable as men to fight fires, and that just isn't true."
As part of the course, the women—wearing 80 pounds of gear—had to run into a burning building (the fire set intentionally with propane) and not only extinguish the fire, but also locate and extricate dummy "victims." Many of the women who participated hardly weighed more than the gear they wore.
"But you hardly notice it's on you when you have your adrenaline pumping and you're running into a fire," said Mara Halley, 30, of the Port Chester Fire Department. Though only 5' 3", Halley said her "sheer determination" helps her keep up with the men in her department.
Though the physical prowess she's gained from kickboxing, running, horseback riding and Krav Maga—a form of Israeli self defense—can't hurt either.
"Regardless of gender, you have to be willing to do this job and show that you're ready; that's how you gain respect," she said.
Other female firefighters said it was more dificult for them to be taken seriously in their departments.
Marissa Castellano, 18, joined the Mohegan Lake Fire Department at the same time as Keesler.
"There were three women who joined that year and the guys were kind of standoff-ish," Castellano said. "It's not that they were un-supportive, but it was as if their eyes were always on us. I think the greatest challenge for female firefighters isn't gaining the respect of the men in their departments, but keeping it."
Castellano even admitted that there's a bit of a stereotype among male firefighters that women join "just to find husbands." Keesler nodded her head in agreement.
"That's just ridiculous," said Castellano, an alumna of Lakeland High School. "I love the rush of fighting fires; that's why I do it. Besides, I grew up working on a fishing boat and now go to a quasi-military institution that's made up of 90 percent guys. I'm just used to the regimented lifestyle."
Shelly Florence-Glover joined the Sleepy Hollow Volunteer Fire Department after having already served on the ambulance corps. for a number of years.
"I joined because I wanted to help people," she said. "I believe that people need to take care of their neighbors."
Despite lifting weights and running, Florence-Glover acknowledged that the average woman's upper-body strength doesn't match that of the average man.
"That's why I think this type of training is crucial," she said. "With proper teamwork, six women can lift the roof off of a burning car and save a life as easily as four men. We just need to learn to work together. I'm not the type of person who wants to sit back and watch because I'm not strong enough to do something. I want to jump into the action."
Labriola-Cuffe said that over the last 5-10 years, women have become more accepted in the local fire departments—but that there's still a long way to go.
"Men can think they're being chivalrous when they take a piece of equipment away from a woman on their team," she said. "But they're just taking time away from fighting the fire. Both women and men are there to do the same job."
As more women are joining Westchester's fire departments, Labriola-Cuffe thinks it's important to hold all-women's trainings; she hopes to hold at least one annually. Now, there are generally two to three women in every class of 25 who join, she said. "But we're definitely seeing the ratios change."
For Castellano, being a member of the fire department is one of the most important parts of her life.
"I can't even describe the rush I get running into a burning building," the teenager said. "My first one was on the night of the fire company's Christmas Party, so when we heard the bells, I jumped into my turnout gear still wearing a skirt. It was so, so cold outside, and so hot inside the building. I couldn't sleep that night because the adrenaline was still pumping. The rush is awesome; it's something that lasts forever."
Fire Departments that sent participants to the all women's training in Valhalla were: Bedford, Sleepy Hollow, Pound Ridge, Pleasantville, Chappaqua, Montrose, Port Chester, Croton, Mamaroneck Village and Mohegan Lake.
Outside the county, departments represented were: Highland Falls, Goodwill, Walden and Coldenham.
See photographs from this weekend's training above.