Under Fire

The Great Gender Integration Debate


The year was 1985. 30 years ago. Back to the Future was playing in theaters, Dire Straits ruled MTV with Money for Nothing. Michael Jordan was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. Gas was $1.09 a gallon.

It was also the year that I learned about gender integration.

I was a firefighter in an all-male department. That’s just the way it was. That’s the way it had always been. In the 100-plus years the department had been in existence, that was the rule. It was a brotherhood, after all. Then one day, it all changed.

Our Chief was old school. He joined the department when Eisenhower was President, rose through the ranks, and became chief sometime before America put men on the moon. He set unforgiving standards, knowing that our lives depended on our ability to not just fight fire, but to deal with the incredible physical and mental exertion that came with it. He gave no quarter, dismissing anyone who hesitated at the doorway of a burning building or failed to uphold the standards of our profession. He believed deeply in the traditions of our service, from the Dalmation at his side to the antique engine we maintained with pride.

Then, on a summer day in 1985, he walked through the old wooden door at the front of the station and announced that he was going to open the ranks of the fire department to women.

Clearly, he’d lost his mind.

Women weren’t strong enough to bear the load of turnouts and equipment, not to mention dragging a charged hose around. And if one of us went down, a woman couldn’t carry us out with all of our gear. Obviously, a woman couldn’t stare down the chaos of a fully-involved fire. And what would happen when they came face-to-face the inevitable tragedy we lived with on a daily basis? No woman would have the physical stamina to keep fighting when all she had left was adrenaline. And having a woman in the department? That could only lead to one thing. This had to be a publicity stunt, and we weren’t going to have it.

“If you don’t like it, you know where the door is.” Always direct, the Chief shut us down before we could get started.

And so it happened. Slowly at first. There weren’t lines of women beating down the doors to join the fire service, but there were a few. There was no fanfare, no parades, no cameras. We watched, and we learned.

Our Chief was old school. He was also a lot more insightful than any of us realized. If you wanted to join his department, you had to meet the standard. He didn’t have a standard for men and a standard for women, he had one standard. Candidates were required to pass three tests — a written exam, a physical test, and a driving test — and clear a police department background check. The written exam required a knowledge of basic math, safety and traffic regulations, and general common sense. The physical test was a grueling obstacle course that looked more like American Ninja Warrior and required the candidate to be in full gear throughout. And the driving test — the Chief required firefighters to be able to operate every piece of department equipment — was something straight out of Hell. Imagine driving a Winnebago backward through rush hour traffic on the freeway and you’ve got a good mental image of the difficulty of the driving test.

In our world, it wasn’t just about saving lives, it was about staying alive to be able to save them. In our world, you couldn’t afford to relax standards, because doing so put lives on the line — and not just ours. In our world, earning that silver Maltese cross meant something. You had to earn it.

And so it happened. Slowly at first. Some women failed the background check. Some the written exam. Most hit the wall on the physical test. And one or two found the driving test a bridge too far. Then, one day, it happened. There was no fanfare, no parades, no cameras.

We all saw it happen, but it wouldn’t have mattered if we didn’t. The Chief didn’t play games with the standard. He enforced it ruthlessly. We’d all seen him break grown men with the standard, bring them to their knees in tears. That bar didn’t fluctuate up or down, but it damn sure clotheslined a lot of men over the years. The Chief was proud of the standard, because it meant something.

I don’t remember her name. It’s been 30 years, after all. But I remember her. She was smart, focused, and tough. In the days before crossfit was a “thing” she took physical fitness to another level altogether. She could do anything we could do, and oftentimes more. When she pinned on that silver Maltese cross, it meant something, too. She earned it.

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