It’s still a predominantly male job, but women in MetroWest are slowly joining local fire departments to do what they say is a gender-neutral career.
While the small town of Goshen in western Massachusetts hired the first female fire chief in the state this week, area fire departments can only boast having 16 full-time female firefighters among hundreds of male colleagues.
“I had to prove I could do the job. I did it for me. That was my goal,” said Helen Pruyn, Framingham’s only female firefighter among 147 men.
Pruyn acknowledges it is not an easy job and, to get it, she had to carry a 150-pound dummy up stairs and down a ladder as fast as she could. The effort was worth it, she said.
“I am very happy. This is a helping-people job,” she said this week after coming back to the Nobscot fire station from a false alarm. “But I did not know I was going to set a precedent.”
Pruyn became the first female firefighter in the area after she joined the department in 1988. She described as “great” the news about the state’s first female fire chief.
Pruyn may have stood alone as a female firefighter when she joined 18 years ago, but recent numbers show she has company.
According to the state Department of Fire Services, the number of women who have been certified as qualified firefighters over the last 10 years has gone from 3 percent to almost 6 percent.
“So we are seeing a real increase in the number of women firefighters over the past decade,” said Jennifer Mieth, spokeswoman of the department. “But this has been a historically male-dominated position so it is taking time for enough women to be in the fire service and start moving up the ranks.”
With four in the ranks, Natick is the town with the most women firefighters in the area, followed by Marlborough, with three, and Ashland, Westborough and Wayland with two each.
Glynnis Lee, a 41-year-old firefighter and paramedic in Natick, said she would not say no to becoming fire chief. But for now, she likes being on the road doing calls.
“Who knows? Maybe in the future, “ said Lee, who lives in Westborough and is known as “Gigi” among her peers.
Lee said it was “fabulous” that Susan Labrie was selected by selectmen as fire chief in Goshen, a small town near Northampton in the western part of the state. More and more women are joining fire departments as paramedics, she said, and after a while, some of them become interested in the firefighting job.
“It takes a lot of upper body strength and that tends to be difficult. There is a lot of climbing and pulling,” said Lee. “I think adrenaline plays a big role, too. It helps you get through every minute.”
There are about 7,000 female career firefighters in the country compared to about 275,000 full-time male firefighters. The difference in numbers has to do with women being excluded from the career until about 30 years ago, said Terese Floren, executive director of the national group Women in the Fire Service, Inc.
Floren said the organization works to improve the fire service environment for women so it becomes more diverse. However, problems including sexual harassment are prevalent, she said.
Molford has no female firefighters because the department has had no opportunity to hire one, said Fire Chief John Touhey.
Milford works under the Civil Service system so Touhey can only hire the top candidates for a job from a list the state gives him. No woman has been on that list yet, he said.
In Wayland, the department “is proud of the two ladies” it employs, said Chief Robert Loomer.
“We wish there would be more. They are very capable women and perform all duties” said Loomer.
Waltham has the lowest ratio among cities and towns that have women firefighters, with only one woman firefighter among 173 men. Fire Chief Richard Cardillo also said his department is under the Civil Service system and no women have shown up on the state’s list except for Melissa Lelievre, two years ago.
Cardillo said that after seeing Lelievre’s performance, he would hire more women if he could.
“Every report I have gotten about her says she performs very well,” he said. “She is an asset to the department. We enjoy having her.”
The 25-year-old firefighter said she hopes to become a lieutenant in a couple of years and, sure, a fire chief in the future.
“Some people think women can’t do the job, so for her (Labrie) to start as a firefighter and become a fire chief is a great accomplishment,” said Lelievre.
(Saturday, August 26, 2006)