Almost before the alarm is done sounding, Bridget Blackmore has pulled on her firefighting pants. Less than a minute later, she’s seated in the back of Fire Engine 18 as the three-person crew peels out of the station, responding to a fire alarm in a northeast Spokane home.
The alarm, it turned out, was false: a rush of steam from the shower had triggered the alarm. Blackmore, who was the first to hop out of the firetruck in full gear, walked back to the truck on a chilly October morning.
On scene for medical and fire calls, Blackmore does what any other firefighter would do. Over the course of her shift that day, she took vital signs for a half-dozen patients, carried a woman to an ambulance on a backboard and broke into a locked car to help a man who was passed out with low blood sugar in the front seat.
Blackmore said she would rather not call attention to herself. But whether she likes it or not, her presence in the department is significant: She’s the first woman hired as a firefighter in Spokane in 18 years.
Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer hopes that a year from now, Blackmore won’t seem so exceptional. The department recently received a federal grant to hire 50 new firefighters, and Schaeffer is hoping to use that as an opportunity to recruit more women.
“I want to get ahead of the curve. I feel like we’re behind the curve already,” Schaeffer told the city’s public safety committee.
Blackmore, 22, started her firefighting career a few years ago at a small volunteer department in British Columbia, where she grew up.
“I was there for about two weeks and they put me inside a burning building,” she said, referring to a training exercise. Many would shy away from such a claustrophobic and dangerous environment, but Blackmore was hooked.
“I just loved the work part of it. It was challenging,” she said.
Back at the station, she hustled to restock medications on the engine and complete her chore for the day: cleaning bathrooms.
Her senior officer for the shift, paramedic and driver Adam Knapp, teased her for her enthusiasm.
“Haven’t you learned from me yet?” he joked, pointing out that as of 10 a.m., his chores hadn’t been started. But he said her eagerness to get the job done is typical for new recruits who want to prove themselves.
Blackmore has been with the Spokane Fire Department just over a year, after moving from a small department in Texas. She recently completed her yearlong probationary period, which included a series of tests on department policies and Spokane streets.
On a ride back from a medical call, Knapp challenged her. “Do North Division,” he says. Blackmore obliges, rattling off every cross street in order from Sprague Avenue in the south all the way up to the Highway 2 turnoff, speaking at a dizzying speed that would put seasoned debaters to shame.
Fire departments across the nation typically have few women on the job. With Blackmore, Spokane has seven female firefighters, about 2.5 percent of the total force, including chiefs and battalion chiefs.
Numbers that small aren’t unusual. The Boise Fire Department has one female firefighter out of 260; Seattle has 77 women in a department of 978.
And about 5.9 percent of the nation’s 318,000 firefighters are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Prospective firefighters have to pass a demanding physical test before being hired, as well as the three-month firefighter academy. Much of the strength needed for firefighting is in the upper body, where men typically have an easier time building muscle.
But female firefighters in Spokane say that’s not the full story. Many women who could do well on tests don’t apply because they’re intimidated or don’t see others like them in such jobs. Recruitment programs often target the military or fire science classes, which also are predominantly male, instead of branching out to places like cross-fit gyms and high schools.
“If we can get our foot in the door, we can achieve,” said Megan Phillips, an assistant fire marshal.
Women with years of experience in the Spokane Fire Department say they want to be treated like anybody else. But they add that having women on crews can help everyone do a better job.
The vast majority of fire department calls are medical, and female patients often are more comfortable with another woman treating them, especially if the issue is sensitive. Some female veterans said they’ve noticed their male peers are more comfortable talking after a stressful or tragic incident if there’s a woman in the room.
“Having a diverse department just makes us that much more resilient,” said retired Lt. Darci Fraser, one of the first women hired in Spokane.
Pushes to hire female firefighters across the U.S. began in the 1970s and ’80s as part of a broader effort to get more women and people of color into jobs traditionally dominated by white men, in some cases through affirmative action. The Seattle Fire Department began recruiting women to apply in 1975 and created a pre-recruit class to help women develop the upper body strength needed to pass the test, according to a history of women in the department on the city website.
In Spokane, the first woman to join the fire department was Sherryl Hart in 1989, eleven years after Seattle hired its first female firefighter. Hart, who’s now a lieutenant, said the men in the department were apprehensive but treated her well.
“They were scared to do anything because they were being watched just as much as I was,” she said. Two other women were in her recruit class.
But women hired a few years later said men sometimes spoke out against their presence, in part because of a number of discrimination lawsuits brought by the first women allowed on the job.
Fraser, hired several years later, remembered sitting through a city-led class on sexual harassment shortly after she was hired.
“One of the guys stood up and said, ‘You shouldn’t be on the job,’” she said. Another man chimed in, “I hear you, brother.”
The content of the class didn’t help, she said. Instead of talking about respect, it treated female firefighters as a legal liability, telling the men they could be sued if they said something wrong.
In spite of some opposition, many women who came into the department in those first few years said their male co-workers were supportive and even protective of them. Fraser remembered men on her crew shielding her from a patient making sexual remarks about her.
In Spokane, hiring of women fell off in the mid-1990s. Lt. Bridget Luby, an Air Force veteran hired in 1995, said preference of veterans probably played a role in the high number of male hires. Veterans are able to receive preference for 10 years after discharge, so the mostly male soldiers who served in Desert Storm and Somalia filled up classes in the late ’90s and early 2000s, she said.
Other than Blackmore, the newest woman still in the department was hired in 1996. All the women hired before Blackmore are now captains or lieutenants.
“They really set the bar for females coming into the job,” Blackmore said. “I have a lot to live up to, which is good.”
As a new recruit, she’s scheduled on relief, meaning she rotates between stations to cover shifts where she’s needed. She said her male co-workers have never made her feel uncomfortable or treated her any differently.
“Everybody is extremely welcoming,” she said.
To get into the fire academy, candidates have to pass a civil service exam and the Candidate Physical Ability Test, or CPAT. Developed in the late 1990s, the test is standardized and requires a license from the International Association of Fire Fighters. More than 1,100 fire departments across the U.S. are licensed to use the test, including Seattle, Pasco and several Snohomish County fire districts.
Spokane recently switched from a more challenging “combat test” to the CPAT. On the old test, prospective firefighters had seven minutes to raise a ladder, carry a hose bag up and down a two-story tower twice, run a hose charged with water into a building, and drag a 185-pound dummy out, all while wearing full firefighting gear.
“I watched at least five or six gals fail in front of me. It’s probably the most nervous I’ve ever been,” Luby said of her original test.
Schaeffer said that test unfairly excluded some people from moving forward in the hiring process by requiring more physical ability than people actually need to fight fires. The test often was more difficult for women because testing sites had gear that was too large to fit correctly, making it more difficult to move efficiently.
“I have never been on a fire in my 25 years where I had to do everything these folks had to do in seven minutes,” Schaeffer said.
John Goodman, the president of the firefighters union in Spokane, said he didn’t necessarily agree the combat test was more challenging than working an actual fire. But he said he had no issue with the department moving to the CPAT.
“We want to have the right person for the job. I don’t care who that is or what they look like,” he said.
Goodman praised Blackmore and said the new recruits don’t seem any less physically capable than those who had to pass the combat test.
“From what I’ve seen in the academy, we’re still getting quality folks,” he said.
The CPAT is standardized and designed to mimic tasks routinely performed at a fire. As part of an agreement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2006, the IAFF began requiring candidates to undergo two orientation sessions and practice tests before attempting the CPAT. The practice sessions can be waived by the candidates but are designed to help more people, especially women, pass the test.
Across the Pacific Northwest over the last three years, about 8.3 percent of women and 2.1 percent of men have failed the test, according to Public Safety Testing, the company which administers it.
Prospective firefighters wear a 50-pound vest and start on a stair-climbing machine with an extra 25 pounds of weight strapped to their shoulders.
For three minutes, they have to walk up the stairs at a rate of 60 per minute. Then they move on to seven other tasks, which include raising a ladder, pulling out hose, dragging a dummy, crawling through a dark tunnel with obstacles, and using a pole to simulate breaching and pulling down a ceiling.
Candidates have to complete the full test in 10 minutes and 20 seconds, including the three minutes on the stairs.
Recruits still have to pass more challenging physical tests in the fire academy, but Schaeffer said the CPAT gives a good baseline to show who’s up to the challenge.
“The idea is not to create barriers up front,” he said.
On a Sunday afternoon in October, a class of would-be firefighters assembled in a high-ceiling concrete room at the fire department’s training center. Amanda Charron, a 26-year-old wildland firefighter with several seasons of experience, was the first of 93 to attempt the test.
By the time she got to the final task, which required using a pike pole to pull and push on a ceiling, Charron was letting out a primal scream for each set of pulls she completed.
“One more!” she yelled when she got to the final set of repetitions.
She finished with 18 seconds to spare.
“She smoked it. She did really good,” said Justin Wells, her proctor. Charron was one of just two women who passed the CPAT that day, out of seven who attempted it.
Charron said she loves the camaraderie of wildland firefighting but wanted to move to structure fires to have more long-term career prospects. She has applied to work in both Spokane and Spokane Valley.
About 10 minutes after finishing the test, she was still sweating but had gotten her adrenaline down enough to talk.
“It’s 10 minutes of just hell, but if you make it through that and on to the next round, you’re on your way to one of the best jobs you could ever have,” she said, smiling.
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