December 22, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Two years ago, while evacuating more than 50 psychiatric inmates from the top floor of Bellevue Hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, firefighter Sarinya Srisakul couldn’t help noting the dozens of powerful female ESU and Corrections Department officers also taking part in the rescue – and wondering why more women like them weren’t part of the FDNY.
“They had dozens of women who were these big, tall, muscular women – bigger than the guys I work with – working for them,” the 34-year-old Mt. Vernon native recently told LaborPress. “And I was like, where do these women come from? Because they can easily become firefighters, too.”
Today, Srisakul remains one of just 44 female firefighters working for the City of New York. The paltry figure represents less than one percent of the 10,500 uniformed firefighters presently serving the FDNY.
The number seems particularly incongruous considering that 18 percent of New York City police officers are women, and 13 percent of U.S. combat troops are women.
Other cities around the nation also far outpace the supposedly progressive leanings of New York City. San Francisco’s fire department, for example, is 13 percent female. Even the national average of 4.5 percent is far out ahead of NYC.
A bill now before the New York City Council seeks to shed more light on the firefighter applicantion process in an effort to better understand the FDNY's enduring gender gap.
“Cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco have up to thirty times more women serving in their fire departments,” Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, chair of the Fire and Criminal Jusice Committee and co-chair of the Women’s Caucus said. “The City not only needs to increase and rethink its recruitment efforts, it needs to answer serious questions regarding testing methods in the Fire Academy that may be keeping female probationary firefighters from graduating.”
Despite the strides that women have been making practically everywhere else, Srisakul believes that the FDNY brass remains resistant to welcoming more women into the ranks.
The FDNY has the lowest rate of female employees of any New York City agency.
“Last time 2,000 women applied, and we’re not seeing those numbers coming through the door,” Srisakul said. “So, there is something going on. In a city of eight and a half million people, there’s more than 44 women interested and qualified enough to be firefighters.”
As head of the Women’s Firefighter Association, Srisakul helps coordinate a training program aimed at helping female applicants successfully navigate the Fire Academy.
Women first entered the ranks of the FDNY in 1982, after many court battles, and the work of pioneering female firefighter Brenda Berkman.
“Women have been doing it for 32 years, and there’s no reason why we can’t get more qualified women to become New York City Firefighters,” Srisakul said. “If I can do it, other women can do it, too. We’re not superwomen. We’re just like they are. With training and dedication, and the desire to be a firefighter, they can be one, too.”
Srisakul was five years into her FDNY career before she ever crossed paths with another female firefighter. She still raises eyebrows whenever interacting with the public.
“It’s hard when you don’t really see us,” Srisakul said. “On a daily basis, I’m told, ‘You’re the first female firefighter I’ve seen.’ People are just shocked.”
In March, the former illustrator and Parsons School of Design student, will celebrate 10 years in the FDNY. Srisakul looks upon her Engine 5 co-workers like an extended family, and while acknowledging her career hasn’t always been rosy, she's tremendously grateful for the experience.
“It’s been great,” Srisakul said. “I really do love my job. It’s a shame that other women haven’t had the opportunity to be part of that, because the Fire Department has really given me so much. It’s really changed my life in the positive. I just want other women to have that experience, too.”
FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro is on record saying that the department needs to do a better job of recruiting female firefighters, and that there are “thousands of women” capable of doing the job.
For help, Srisakul recalls Bellevue Hospital in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and suggests maybe taking a page out of the Department of Corrections and ESU recruiting handbooks.
"Whatever they do, they’re doing it right – and we need to follow what they do," Srisakul said.