TAKING THE HEAT: The First Women Firefighters of New York City

Women Firefighters Timeline


Brenda Berkman

Photo of 54-year-old Brenda Berkman wearing a jacket with an upturned collar over a blue uniform, she gazes to the left of the camera with a resolute expression; blurry buildings of the New York City skyline are visible in the background.

What are the most and least appealing things about being a woman firefighter?

The best thing about being a woman firefighter is that I get to help people. I also like the fact that I and other women have shown we can do the job—and opened that door so girls and young women can follow in our footsteps. The thing I like least about my job is how many people still stereotype women firefighters as weak. Where have they been? For over 30 years now, women firefighters from all over the U.S. have been proving they can do all aspects of the job.

Age: 54
Rank: Captain
Years on the job: 23+
Home station: Engine 239, Brooklyn

Why did you choose to become a firefighter?

I wanted a job where I could help people. There is no better job for that than firefighting because people call the fire department when they can't think of who else to call—we are often their last resort. I also liked the physical and mental challenges of the job—every day is different and you never know what will happen when you show up for work. The FDNY also has (had) a relatively good salary, opportunity for promotion, a pension and other benefits.

What were the most difficult aspects of becoming a firefighter?

When I first came on the job 23 years ago, fighting fires was the easiest part of the job for me. Much harder was dealing with the hatred and discrimination that some male firefighters had for me. Now, many of the initial problems FDNY women firefighters encountered have improved.

How do you stay in shape—mentally and physically—for your job?

Training for this job is a career-long pursuit. Every day I try to learn something new that I can apply to my work. I also continue to train physically—running, lifting weights, etc. As a result, I keep mentally sharp and more physically fit than most people my age.

What do your family members/friends think of what you do?

People who didn't know me were initially skeptical that I would stay on the job. But I have kept at it longer than many of the men who came on the job with me. My family and friends have provided me with tremendous support through many hard times. This includes other women firefighters. I never could have stayed on this job without the support of family and friends.

Would you encourage young girls to become firefighters? What advice could you offer?

I would recommend that they try to learn as much as possible about the real job—not rely on what they have seen in movies. The Women in the Fire Service Web site contains good information about how to prepare for a career in firefighting. Local colleges may have fire science courses. Volunteer fire departments or wildland departments may be looking for members. Fire departments may have career days, information on their Web sites about their application process and other ways of learning how to get a job.

Take all aspects of the application process seriously—most departments have a written exam, a physical abilities test and some kind of interview—and prepare. It is important to be in good physical shape. Give yourself time to get in shape and specifically prepare for the physical abilities entry test.

Read Cubby Fitzpatrick’s Q&A >>

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