When Sarinya Srisakul heard about allegations of abuse at the Los Angeles Fire Department, she wasn’t surprised. As the first Asian American woman in the New York Fire Department and a former president of United Women Firefighters, a fraternal organization of female firefighters in the FDNY, she said she’s familiar with the hazing and harassment women and people of color can experience on the job, which is still largely dominated by White men.
“When I first got on the job, I got really harassed,” the 16-year veteran FDNY lieutenant told The Lily. She said that she was forced to repeat Fire Academy training twice, for example, a tactic she said was used to discourage people, specifically women of color, from joining the department.
“They didn’t really do that before me,” she said. “It’s physically difficult, mentally difficult. They started using that as a tool.”
When she goes to conferences for female firefighters, Srisakul said, she hears other stories of harassment. One colleague in a department often celebrated for its high number of women told her that a male colleague urinated in her bed at the firehouse. Srisakul said that when she offered to connect the woman to a lawyer, she declined. She remembers the woman telling her: “I have six more years left before I retire. I’ll just ride it out.”
Now, the recent calls for changes at the Los Angeles Fire Department have renewed the national spotlight on female firefighters, whose ranks remain low, despite decades of integration.
Last Friday, LAist reported fresh allegations of on-the-job abuse, harassment and even sexual assault of female firefighters. Female firefighters alleged abuse such as raw chicken mixed into their belongings, colleagues exposing themselves and even a rape by a male colleague at a firehouse.
LAFD spokeswoman Cheryl Getuiza said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that the department “immediately conducted an internal administrative investigation and referred the case to the LAPD to conduct a criminal investigation” regarding the alleged rape. “LAPD detectives did not file a criminal report.”
Some female firefighters and civil rights groups are calling for Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas to step down after months of reports about sexual harassment and discrimination in the L.A. media.
On Monday, embattled Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D), who is facing opposition by police and firefighter unions against citywide vaccine mandates, offered Terrazas his support.
“He and the entire LAFD leadership know that I have zero tolerance for sexism, racism, or harassment in our firehouses or any other workplace — and I expect them to act with urgency when any allegations of abuse are brought to their attention,” Garcetti said at a news conference on Monday.
Neither Terrazas’s nor Garcetti’s office responded to additional requests for comment.
LAFD Battalion Chief Kris Larson, president of Los Angeles Women in the Fire Service, said she has fielded many accounts over the 31 years she’s been on the job from women who said they have experienced harassment.
She pointed out that statistically, women underreport workplace harassment, abuse and sexual assault. “The deep-seated culture within our organization is: Just don’t say it,” she said. “But then when it blows up, it blows up bad. It is a nationwide problem.”
Regina Wilson, a Black woman FDNY firefighter, said the Los Angeles news reports did not surprise her. She said she had spoken with women from Los Angeles at a Women in Fire conference who alleged harassment, too.
“All of this hazing and all of this unfair treatment comes from disrespect from men thinking that their masculinity is being questioned or you’re someplace that you’re not supposed to be,” she said.
There are parallels in other male-dominated professions. But compared to similar ones, women still make up a much lower percentage of firefighters. In 2018, women made up 26.7 percent of U.S. law enforcement, 16 percent of the U.S. Army and 10 percent of the Marine Corps.
In contrast, only about 4 percent of firefighters are women, according to Department of Labor data from 2018. The field is also mostly White: 8.4 percent of all firefighters were Black, 8 percent were Hispanic or Latino, and only 1.1 percent were Asian.
San Francisco is often cited for having 15.3 percent of the force as women, the highest percentage in the country.
But Larson said it’s not just about numbers; she still hears disturbing reports from women with departments that have greater female representation, she said.
“Usually you say, when 10 to 15 percent of an organization is a specific minority, it changes the view of the minority,” she said. “I’m beginning to think that maybe that’s not true and it’s an institutionalized issue that is going to take some serious work to dismantle.”
In 1982, Brenda Berkman, armed with a law degree from New York University, sued the FDNY to become a firefighter. After she won her suit, she and 40 women were able to join the city’s force. But on the job, she said, they still had to deal with problems such as harassment and assault and having equipment sabotaged. She was forced out, she said, and successfully sued to be reinstated. (Berkman’s experience and that of other FDNY female pioneers was documented in the 2006 PBS documentary “Taking the Heat.”)
“People were draining air [oxygen] tanks and messing with equipment,” Berkman said. “Plenty of assault charges should have been brought against people for the physical abuse women were undergoing.”
Despite the threats on the job and the retaliation speaking out can bring, Berkman said women and minorities who speak out strengthen the entire fire service. Srisakul pointed out the majority of calls they get aren’t to fight fires; they are EMS calls, and seeing a woman in situations involving domestic violence or child abuse could help.
Despite the recent reports, some women are gaining a higher profile, and even top jobs, in a small but growing number of fire departments. Just look at the D.C. metro area alone. Tiffany D. Green became the first Black woman to be named fire chief in Prince George’s County, Md. In next-door Anne Arundel County, Trisha Wolfor became the first female fire chief in 2019. In March, Cerisa Speight became Howard County’s first Black woman chief officer, in a county that saw its first female fire chief, Christine Uhlhorn, in 2018. Baltimore County also boasts a woman as its fire chief: Joanne Rund.
Despite the hardship, Berkman and Larson said firefighting is an incredible job. For Berkman, who was off-duty but rushed to Ground Zero on 9/11, it’s the ability to save lives. Learning about construction, mechanics and different aspects of the business also means she’s constantly learning, she said. For Larson, she’s been able to “do things and go places that I never would have been,” she said — whether it’s a movie star’s home, or responding to a medical call backstage at a concert.
And there’s another reason women don’t want to risk or leave the job: the benefits.
“It’s so hard to get this job,” said Srisakul. “It’s like getting a lottery ticket, and you’re set for life, because you can retire early and the schedule is good. People don’t want to mess it up, so they tend not to say anything, or they tend to swallow a lot of stuff, for the benefits.”
If a woman is lucky enough to work as a firefighter like her, in a union-protected position, she pointed out, they don’t have to accept the conventional gender gap in pay, in which women earn 84 cents to a man’s dollar.
As she put it: “If you have a man’s job, you’re making that man’s dollar.”