In a city that’s often praised for its robust diversity, only a tiny fraction of all New York City firefighters are women. Currently, they represent only 52 out of over 10,500 total (that’s less than 0.5%).
Thankfully the United Women Firefighters (UWF), are on a mission to fight more than just fires—they want to upend the lonely level of women employed by the New York City Fire Department (FDNY). Known for having the first female firefighter in the nation, the city’s progress since the first woman joined in 1818 has been remarkably stunted. In the 200 years that followed, candidates have faced protests, abuse, and discrimination both in the firehouse and out.
Since NYPD and EMS personnel continue to outpace the gender balance of FDNY, both in leadership and entry-level positions, UWF has offered training and support for women of all ages, races, and orientations. UWF head Sarinya Srisakul has been involved in the group since 2003, serving as president for the past three and a half years. She’s the city’s first—and only—female Asian-American firefighter, on a mission to increase the women in her midst.
In the midst of responding to calls, training, and fighting for equal representation, Srisakul found the time to talk with GOOD.
Tell us a little about why FDNY’s hiring rates of women are so low.
Historically, the first group of women [firefighters] got tortured. I mean, they had the men’s wives picketing outside the firehouses, women got assaulted. It was a really hostile work environment, they were in the paper every day. So for a long time, we didn’t hire any women. I mean, who would want to walk into an environment like that? Until the commissioner we have now, no other leadership in the FDNY has ever committed themselves to fixing this problem.
So what made you want to enter that environment, what’s kept you there?
To be honest, being a trailblazer was attractive to me. And that really drove me a lot when I was a candidate–to push to make this achievement. I knew it was going to be hard. I think the job attracts people who want to make a difference in the world
What kind of legacy do you want to leave with UWS?
A lot of what we’re pushing to do is just to create fairness and equality for women. And we really do feel that the more women join our ranks, the better we all will get treated as a group. Right now there are so few of us, and some women may feel isolated or uncomfortable because they’re the only one in their firehouse or in their whole area. I was the only one south of 100th St for five years.
What do you think doesn’t get discussed enough with the public?
Women firefighters come in all shapes and sizes, so we have firefighters who are five feet tall and up to over six feet tall. We have skinny women, fat women, all in between. We come in all races and ethnicities. We have a transgender woman, we have women all across the LGBT spectrum. So we’re a very diverse group. With the proper training and support, anyone who is committed to doing this can.
What’s it like when responding to a call?
Those [gender] issues aren’t around, because when you have your gear on, we all look the same. And in a fire, it’s pitch black. So there’s no issues on the fire floor.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
For upcoming initiatives, information on their community/candidate trainings (2016’s a recruitment year), and legislation worth supporting, follow UWF on Twitter.