Burning Down the Boy's Club with One of LA's Only Female Firefighters
All images by Nathaniel Wood

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Burning Down the Boy's Club with One of LA's Only Female Firefighters

After a rash of discrimination lawsuits and single-digit percentage numbers of women in the force, the Los Angeles Fire Department is attempting to open a notorious boy's club to female recruits. Anh Nguyen is one of them.
March 23, 2016, 7:45pm

Firefighter Anh Nguyen is used to being the only woman in the room. Nguyen is one of 96 women in a department just shy of 3300. Women make up only 2.95 percent of the fire service in Los Angeles, but the LAFD is trying to change that by rolling out a new, big-budget recruitment effort to attract more women to the force. Following a five-year hiring freeze, Nguyen is one of the first female firefighters the LAFD hired, and today she's seven months into the year-long probationary period that's standard for all new firefighters in Los Angeles.

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Nguyen is deceivingly small-built and strong. She moves easily in the 40-pound yellow jacket and pants, called "turnout gear," that firefighters wear when they show up on a scene. She's friendly, but quiet and focused.

"My motto with everything, my attitude, is: Keep your expectations low and hope for the best," she says. "Obviously, I'm the only female there. It's a very obvious thing." But she'd rather not draw any more attention to her gender than there already is. "What's important for me right now [is] just keeping my head down and learning my job," she says.

The LAFD gave Broadly unique access to firefighters all the way up to top brass to talk about what went wrong with past diversity efforts and how they're different from the department's current attempts to transform a decades-old, white, mustachioed, and sometimes frat-boy culture.

"People think that the fire service is all about brawn and fighting fires," says Battalion Chief Alicia Welch. "[But] we do so many other things." Eighty-six percent of calls to the LAFD are medical; there are car accidents, search and rescue operations, and, Welch smiles, even the occasional "cats that are stuck in trees."

At six feet tall, Welch is a formidable presence, and she has a keen sense of what fire professionals refer to as "situational awareness." Experienced and alert, she could nimbly switch gears in a second if, in the middle of our interview, I suddenly needed CPR. If I am ever in a situation where I have to call the fire department, I hope it's Welch who shows up at my door.

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A 25-year veteran of the department, she doesn't only want to boost the numbers of women in the LAFD—she'd like to see the culture change.

"Little girls standing on the curb seeing one of these [fire] trucks go by," she says, "It's very rare that they see a face that looks like them."

Nguyen didn't set out to be a firefighter. She was in grad school preparing for a career in teaching when she met a friend's brother who worked as a firefighter.

"That always intrigued me," Nguyen says. "Giving back, working directly with people. But for me too, being a former athlete, the physical aspect was very appealing, having that directly incorporated in a career." Like many firefighters, Nguyen has a background in high school and college athletics; as part of its diversity outreach, the LAFD is targeting female college athletes and former military personnel, and the department recently started a high school magnet program.

On the day we're scheduled to meet, Nguyen is on duty. She agreed to an interview with the caveat that we'd have to break if and when a call comes in; she works at the sixth-busiest house in the city. When I arrive at the house, she's gone, and when a fire engine pulls into the station a little while later, I spot her in the window, the only woman in the truck, her hair tightly pulled back. Her captain tells me she'll be right with me.

They'd just returned from an activated sprinkler in a building that turned out to be a malfunction, not a fire, but seconds later, I hear the automated dispatch overhead, a computerized woman's voice broadcast through every room in the firehouse, with the next emergency. "ENGINE…" the voice repeats the type of emergency and the address of the next call.

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Nguyen is back in the truck. As they pull out of the driveway, she leans her head out of the window and asks if I want to hop in. Another firefighter moves an axe to make room for me to sit down in the back seat.

Sirens blaring, we race through red lights, the captain on the radio. The men, and Nguyen, are all at attention, ready to move quickly, no small talk.

On location, we hang back for a moment—there's a possibility that a weapon was drawn, and police want to secure the scene first. The captain is wearing what looks like Kevlar under his gear. Once the scene is secure (there was no weapon), Nguyen is out of the truck with a paramedic kit. The call was a man who seems to have passed out at a bus stop. She attends to him while the others hang back. She checks his vitals; he seems OK, but he asks to be taken to a hospital. They wait for transport to arrive.

The captain watches Nguyen work. He tells me that the learning curve for rookies is steep. Even though the probationary period is a year, it takes a good five to know everything you need to know.

Later, Nguyen tells me that one of her weaknesses coming in was mechanical aptitude, needing to learn what household tools are, what's in a tool box, something that seems unrelated to firefighting but isn't. Which wrench to use when you remove the cap from a hydrant is one example.

"They were very patient in teaching me," she says. "I feel like they genuinely wanted me to learn."

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The ride back is more relaxed; the man was off to the hospital. No sirens. We make our way back to the station, but back at the firehouse, not two minutes go by when another call comes in—the automated dispatch overhead, the computerized woman's voice, "ENGINE…"

The LAFD doesn't have a great history with women; it's settled both gender discrimination and sexual harassment suits for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It strikes me that the voice on the automated dispatch is the only woman's voice you'll hear in most fire stations in Los Angeles, and across the country; there's a women's locker room in the firehouse where Nguyen works, and she has a separate bathroom, but she sleeps in the bunkroom with the guys. According to a study by the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, over 50 percent of fire departments in the United States have no female firefighters. Female firefighters across the country surveyed by the association reported complaints ranging from being shunned and isolated by men in the firehouse to verbal harassment and sexual advances.

Nana Gyamfi, an attorney who has represented female and minority firefighters in suits against the LAFD, points to the culture. Gyamfi represented D'Lisa Davies, a black female firefighter who said she was consistently bypassed for promotions. According to Gyamfi, when Davies would try to practice new skills, like driving the truck, men in the department would tell her, "No girls are going to drive my rig."

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"Four or five years ago, you still had people referring to the clerical staff as 'the girl,'" Gyamfi says. "And I would constantly be correcting them. They're not 'the girl'—you're talking about grown women."

The discrimination Davies experienced, says Gyamfi, was subtle but constant, and it included remarks about her clothing and whether she was wearing a bra. "It just makes your day-to-day awful," Gyamfi says.

The city settled Davies's suit for $350,000 in 2013, which means that the funds came out of the city's coffers instead of the fire department's. Gyamfi thinks that if the LAFD had to pay for settlements directly, it would create more accountability.

"People have to feel the pain," she says.

Gyamfi adds that the discrimination isn't always in plain sight. "Firefighters are looked at differently than police officers," she says. "Police officers, when they have a certain culture, people end up dead, unarmed, haven't committed any crime. The fire department—you don't have that, so people don't see [the discrimination]."

Chief Ralph Terrazas knows what he walked into. A 31-year veteran of the LAFD and the first Hispanic Fire Chief there, Terrazas set big goals for himself and the department as soon as he was appointed to the job in 2014.

"In terms of the female experience, when it comes up, we have to be transparent," he says. "We tell them, 'In the past, there were issues, and now I think we're a more evolved fire department.'"

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Terrazas wants the LAFD to be 5 percent women by 2020, and the steps he's created to get there are concrete: increasing recruitment staff, bringing in an outside firm to design a promotional campaign, and fostering mentoring relationships so that women coming into the force stay on the force.

"I think it's important that the department reflect the people that we serve," Terrazas says. "When we come to your house, you're not having a good day. It could be a fire, a medical incident. There's a sense of trust."

Terrazas is not just making efforts towards immediate recruitment. He's also looking more deeply at who is going to be the next generation of firefighters, hosting career expos and events for children. At one, he met a seven-year old girl who started to cry when she realized she could be a firefighter, too.

"Who told you that you couldn't?" Terrazas asked her. She responded, "A little boy."

On the spot, Terrazas introduced her to Welch and other female officers.

"What it told me was, we're hitting the mark," he said. "It's an intangible. You can't count it right now, but we've got to start a paradigm shift to get kids—little kids—thinking that they could become a firefighter."

Welch is excited about the prospect. She's excited that the marketing campaign is being designed by professionals instead of people from the department handing out flyers on college campuses—something they did in the old days.

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"I could break this door down if you asked me to do that, but marketing is not something I'm trained in," Welch laughs.

When it comes to women entering the force, it's easy to focus on the physical challenges of the job—the oxygen bottle firefighters wear is 40 pounds, added to another 40 pounds for the protective gear. The heaviest ladder is 190 pounds.

"We're all unique, we all have different strengths," Terrazas says. "We go to an incident and say, 'There's a big door we have to get into.' You just look around for the biggest person [and say], 'Hey! Get into that!'"

Some of the women currently taking firefighting training classes now include a college athlete and a former CrossFit trainer. But the application also includes a written exam, an oral interview, and a background check and psychological evaluation shrouded in mystery. Tests vary from department to department. One firefighter in San Francisco said that too many parking tickets can disqualify a person, because it demonstrates problems with authority.

And the job itself, if you make it, is grueling. In LA, firefighters work 24-hour shifts.

"You could be in bed one minute and then on a roof that's on fire ten minutes later, still trying to wake up," Terrazas says. "You see human tragedy, going on EMS calls, traffic accidents—there's a lot of terrible things you see. Some people just are not made up to be able to deal with it."

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Back in the firehouse with Nguyen, there's that automated woman's voice again, calling out the next emergency and location.

I ask Welch if she knows why it's a woman's voice and if she doesn't find that ironic. She doesn't know the answer but offers, "Probably because a woman's voice provides calm."

While Nguyen says she's never felt the isolation some female firefighters have talked about, it can get lonely being the only woman in the firehouse.

"Would it be great to have a crew of all capable women? I can only imagine how fun that would be," Welch says. "These guys that go to work every day and they get to ride around on a big truck with their best friends—would I want to be able to do that? Absolutely. But you can build very good, rewarding relationships with the men you work with as well."

"I want to establish myself and my own reputation for what I do and what my abilities are on the job," Nguyen says. "I just want to learn and to be a good firefighter and to let the rest fall into place."

On the truck with Nguyen, we're a half-block from the firehouse when another call comes in: a structure fire. This time, I don't get to ride along.

"We gotta drop you off here," one of the firefighters says, and they pull over. Nguyen hops out to let me out, and in the process, in a split second, she's in her boots and full turnout gear, reaching for her helmet.

"I'm so sorry about this," she says. She steps back up in the truck.

They flip the lights and siren on, and the engine speeds down the street.