Firewatchers: Much Ado about Very Little
June 26, 2011, 12:00 AM
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With the press in a tizzy over the epochal importance of gay marriage in New York state, the Chicago Tribune has an unwittingly timely article on a past whoop-tee-doo that has quietly fizzled:
Female firefighters blazed a trail that few followed
After 25 years, they are still rare in Chicago and suburbs
Twenty-five years ago, Daniels was among the first group of 20 female firefighters hired in Chicago, a move that gave women entree to a macho profession that had been reserved primarily for white men. The women braved hostility, harassment and low expectations to prove they were capable of doing the job. Yet today, women remain barely visible in the firefighting ranks in the Chicago area and the nation.
In Chicago, there are 116 women, representing just over 2 percent of the department of more than 5,000. Nationally, fewer than 11,000 women are career firefighters, making up 3.6 percent of the firefighter population, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. ...
For most women, it was impossible to pass the physical test, which included timed exercises of hanging from a pole, climbing stairs carrying a 60-pound coiled hose and pulling a 150-pound dummy across a room without its feet touching the floor. ...
In the 1980s, the U.S. Justice Department urged the city, then led by Mayor Harold Washington, to hire more women and minorities as part of a 1974 consent decree governing minority hiring at the Fire Department. A new test was developed in 1985 that eased some of the demanding physical tasks and placed more emphasis on the written exam. The physical exam remains a barrier for some women in Chicago and the suburbs.
The women in the 1986 class were given additional physical training before entering the fire academy. In an affirmative-action move, those who passed the test were placed ahead of men who scored higher, making some men even more resentful. The women were assigned in pairs to 10 stations. ...
Most of the old fire stations in Chicago have been replaced or retrofitted to accommodate women.
The same is true in the suburbs. In Schaumburg, for example, all of the firehouses have been built or remodeled with unisex washrooms and bunkrooms. Hoffman Estates has separate female locker rooms and other facilities for women, though the village has not hired a woman.
One to 2 percent of applicants are women, but none has scored high enough on the entrance exam to make the hiring list, said Hoffman Estates fire Chief Robert Gorvett.
"We openly acknowledge the fact that we're all white men," Gorvett said. "It's certainly not something we're proud of."