By Eniola Brown, FDNY Firefighter – Back in 2012, I worked in the South Bronx, helping underprivileged and disadvantaged youth gain employment and advance their education. As part of my work, I invited various city agencies to present career opportunities to the youth we served. When the New York City Fire Department was presenting, I was intrigued and thought, I can do that.
I was 28 years old, at that time, just under the cutoff for applying for the test.
On the day of the exam, I arrived at the crack of dawn with hundreds of other candidates. I noticed that I was the only woman on line. I was the only person of color on line. Unfazed, I said to myself, I got this.
The results came in, and I got a perfect score.
I began training for the physical aspect of the job under the guidance and tough love of the United Women Firefighters. I was getting stronger and faster. I was starting to see my dream become a reality. I wanted to do more, to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that I was strong and powerful enough to be a part of New York’s bravest. Then… wait for it… I found out I was pregnant. My husband and I discussed it; he encouraged me not to give up on my dream.
As a woman, all eyes are on you. They are not wondering IF you will give up; they’re wondering WHEN.
6 weeks after I had my beautiful son, I went back to training. I was in war mode and reached a new level of discipline, one that helped me achieve the coveted title of New York’s bravest.
Still breastfeeding, still working in the South Bronx, where I commuted every day from Staten Island, I attended every workout session that the United Women Firefighters offered (ok, not every one, but most of ’em).
During the workouts, something as simple as a jumping jack hurt. My breasts were painfully heavy, full of milk, and leaking. I was a beat behind, a day late, and a dollar short. Strangely, my spirit didn’t feel how my body felt. My spirit was fueled by the women of the United Women Firefighters – both the trainers and my fellow women candidates.
They never took it easy on me though. Never let me skip a drill or a push-up. “NO EXCUSES! SHUT UP AND GET IT DONE! A PERSON TRAPPED IN THE BACK ROOM OF A HOUSE ON FIRE DOESN’T CARE IF YOU’RE BREAST FEEDING, GET THE JOB DONE!” That’s good ol’ tough love.
As a woman, many interactions with the fire department can be discouraging. I remember calling the office and hearing, “You’re calling the wrong line.” I replied, “No sir, I’m calling to confirm my firefi-.” Click there goes the dial tone again. I also remember reporting in for my physical exam and a WOMAN said to me, “You shouldn’t be here, leave the firefighting to the boys.” I thought to myself, sorry not sorry, boo, I don’t agree, and… I didn’t ask for your opinion.
My final physical exam before entering fire academy was insanely tough. 96% of people fail on the first try – men and women alike. With that success rate, it’s no surprise that the test is administered twice. It’s the test where, for most women, their journey ends. You wear a 50lb vest while climbing a stairmill for 8 minutes. I didn’t pass the first time.
I went back to United Women Firefighters feeling defeated, like I too, may be at the end of my journey. But I KNEW I had to keep going. One of the trainers said to me, “When you take your final test, don’t get off the stairs, don’t give yourself that option. If you fall off, that’s one thing, but DON’T GET OFF, no matter what.”
For my second go round, a number of candidates – all men and myself – nervously waited to be called, 3 at a time. “Candidate Eniola Brown, you’re up.” There was no turning back and failure was NOT an option. I was strapped in and ready to go. The evaluators along with the other candidates weren’t eyeing the men, even though they were just as likely to fail; you would’ve thought Tupac was in the room the way all eyes were on me. AND as a woman, all eyes ARE on you. They are not wondering IF you will give up; they’re wondering WHEN. I remembered my infant at home, my husband, the youth I mentored, and my United Women Firefighters support system. I had more than enough reasons to fight, to PUSH THROUGH the pain. I was not giving up. Sweat was dripping off me like a faucet. I DID NOT get off. When I saw the 8 minute mark, I knew my journey was not over, in fact, it was just beginning.
Knowing the expectations everyone had for me – because I’m a woman – gave me the motivation I needed to power through and persevere. I didn’t tap out at all; I left that one for the boys and they didn’t disappoint.
I entered fire academy where I was 1 of 5 women out of the 318 probationary firefighters. As women, WE have to set our own expectations because there are people setting the bar really low and just waiting for us to fail every step along the way.
As part of training at the academy, you’re sent into a smokehouse. You actually have to inhale smoke and you’re taught how to do so without panicking. You, along with the rest of your squad, stay in the smokehouse for a while or until someone panics and taps out. Right before my squad goes in, I was told, “You know the women always tap out first.” Knowing the expectations everyone had for me – because I’m a woman – gave me the motivation I needed to power through and persevere. I didn’t tap out at all; I left that one for the boys and they DIDN’T disappoint.
In November 2016, I graduated the Fire Academy and was assigned to FDNY Engine Company 28 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I LOVE my job; it IS best job in the world. I have job security along with amazing benefits and a flexible work schedule that allows me to maintain a strong presence in my young son’s life.
I couldn’t have done it without the strong women of the United Women Firefighters. Now I pay it forward. I train women candidates, volunteer at events, and mentor candidates on their journeys.
I know that with the dedication of the United Women Firefighters and the support of the New York Women’s Foundation, we will continue to see an increase in women who join our ranks as firefighters.
This new mom was able to achieve her dreams, boobs leaking and all; I encourage all of you to do the same. Do NOT stop until your dreams become your reality.