By United Women Firefighters – On Wednesday, September 26, 2018, an all-women staffed FDNY engine company served the City of New York for the first time in the department’s 153 year history. The crew – Lieutenant Tracy Lewis, Firefighter Martha Brekke, Firefighter Eniola Brown, Firefighter Vanessa Schoening, Firefighter Sarinya Srisakul, and Firefighter Regina Wilson – was detailed to Engine 503 on 51st Street and worked as part of ramped up efforts to protect the dignitaries of the United Nations General Assembly on its last day in session.
This history-making all-women crew comes on the heels of an overall increase of women firefighters in the FDNY. Since 2013, after a 4.5 year hiring freeze, 46 new women firefighters have been hired, which more than doubled the total number of women on the force to 72. This is the highest number of women ever serving as firefighters and fire officers in the FDNY, and the record keeps getting broken with each new fire academy class. Currently, a large group of women probationary firefighters are slated to graduate next month.
Historically, the number of women firefighters in New York City was been as low as 25, out of a force of roughly 10,500-11,000 members. For many decades, New York City held the unfortunate record of having the lowest percentage of women firefighters out of all the major departments in the country. This has only changed recently with the Cleveland Fire Department now lagging behind. Although the women in the FDNY only comprise 0.65% of the force, they are within striking distance of having triple digits of women serving for the first time.
The first group of women firefighters were sworn in to the FDNY on September 25, 1982. As their hiring was the result of a contentious lawsuit, they faced hostility and harassment. Now 36 years later, this week’s history-making all-women staffed tour is a great commemoration of that date, and shows how much progress has been made for FDNY firewomen.
Retired Captain Brenda Berkman was the sole named plaintiff of that game-changing lawsuit. She dealt with the backlash that came from her landmark victory throughout her career. “I’m impressed with the progress that has been made in the department so far and I really wish I could have been the officer on this momentous occasion,” said Berkman. After the initial group of women firefighters were hired, it took 10 more years for another woman to get hired because of the hostile conditions. Berkman added, “Back in my day, they intentionally separated the women so that we would never work together. It’s great to see women finally being treated as equals on what should be another work day in the FDNY.”
The pioneering Berkman is also the founder, and current Retiree Representative of the United Women Firefighters (UWF), a non-profit run by a small, but dedicated group of FDNY women firefighters and officers who work tirelessly to recruit and mentor young women who want to become firefighters. The UWF conducts a year round training program that helps women candidates pass their physical tests and fire academy. From the roster of Wednesday’s all-women staffed engine company, Firefighter Sarinya Srisakul is the president of the UWF, Firefighter Regina Wilson is the Brooklyn Borough Representative, and Lieutenant Tracy Lewis is the Sergeant-At-Arms.