Women’s Work

It’s 2 a.m. on a rainy Saturday: nightclub rush hour, when last call pushes the evening’s revelers out of the bars and onto the roads. Two lanes are down on I-95 northbound near the Branch Avenue exit in Providence, and the whirling red glare of emergency lights illuminates what looks to be a tragic rollover. A compact sedan, the headlights still on, lies flipped upside-down, tires to the sky, like an upended turtle. A second car is in the left-hand lane, facing the wrong way, its passenger side pinned against the center median. A clutch of firefighters and police officers huddles against the rain as a young man strapped to a backboard, his neck braced in a cervical collar, is lifted into a fire department ambulance.

Captain Heidi Rivard is the officer of Rescue Company 3, which operates this ambulance. Just over five feet tall in thick-soled black work shoes, her black hair fastened in a single braid down her back, Rivard watches closely as her partner, Al Lippacher, palpates the young man’s arm for a vein for the IV.

Lippacher murmurs something about having trouble finding a vein, and Rivard reaches over to help him. He hesitates, and she interrupts him — “Don’t do it too…” She catches herself. “Alright. Do it where it feels right.”

Lippacher places the needle against the man’s skin. Behind Rivard, someone climbs into the driver’s seat and puts the ambulance in gear. A voice hollers back, “We’re gonna move this up, all right?”  
“No!” Lippacher yells.

“Give us just a sec,” Rivard says firmly, her eyes on Lippacher’s hand as he guides the IV into the vein. “All right now.” The ambulance rolls forward along the rain-black asphalt.

A half mile to the south, in the traffic snarl caused by the accident, a car rear-ends a tractor trailer; then another driver skids into the bumper of the car ahead. Before the highway is cleared, a seven-car pileup will have been added to the night’s catalog of accidents. It will be nearly dawn before Rivard, who’s been on shift since 5 p.m. Thursday, gets a moment to close her eyes.

On the day that sixteen-year-old Heidi Verity marched through the door of the Harmony, Rhode Island, volunteer fire department and announced her intent to become a firefighter, the Providence Fire Department — the state’s largest career department — was still years away from accepting the first woman into its ranks.

It was 1983.

Today Rivard is one of thirteen women among the nearly 450 firefighters of the P.F.D. Her promotion to lieutenant in 1998 made her the department’s first female officer; last June, she was promoted again and so became the first female captain — and the highest-ranking female firefighter — in P.F.D. history.

At forty-one, Rivard is one of the department’s success stories: she excels at her work as an officer; she is respected by her superiors and well-liked by her coworkers. During her career she has worked on all three of the major types of companies, each named for the truck at the center of the job: the engine, the water-pumping truck, whose firefighters drag the charged hose deep into burning buildings; the ladder, for getting equipment and firefighters onto burning roofs or into third-floor apartments; and the
rescue truck, the ambulance.

When Rivard joined the P.F.D. she was assigned to Rescue 3 — she’d already earned her EMT certification while working as a firefighter in Smithfield — and she’s spent most of her career there. Rescue work suits her: it’s fast-paced, it involves taking care of people, and you never know what you’ll get on a given shift.

There’s no such thing as a typical night on res- cue; when 911 is called in Providence, a rescue truck is often sent out — whether it’s for an auto accident, a kid’s bloody nose or a fire. Inevitably, some calls are harder than others. At a 2003 house fire on Abbott Street, for example, Rivard and her partner worked on a man her colleagues had just pulled from a burning building. Three children had also been trapped inside. “He
had been running back in the house to try to get the kids out,” she remembers, “and when I got to the scene, the ladder company had just gotten him out of the building. They were doing CPR on him, and I just grabbed him and took over.” The man’s body temperature was already dangerously low, but Rivard and her partner brought him to the hospital alive. “They worked on him a lot longer than they normally would, but eventually he did not end up making it. But the kids survived, the guys got them out, and I think that had something do with him,” she says. This is typical of her stories: she deflects praise. And, as a single mom, she often thinks about the kids.

She may be modest about her achievements, but she has been recognized for them. Last October, Rivard stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her fellow firefighters — a petite woman in a line of six-foot-plus men — to accept a unit citation for her work at the Abbott Street fire.

The thirteen women of the Providence Fire Department deserve every accolade they receive. But behind the image of Rivard being honored beside her colleagues is another story: that of women’s struggle to find a place within firefighting’s long-established male-dominated culture.

The second edition of the P.F.D. history, Firefighters and Fires in Providence, published in 2002, shows a photograph of a young Rivard rappelling down a wall at the training academy. The caption identifies Rivard and her academy classmate Melissa Talbot as “path-breaking female pioneers.” There is also mention of another woman whose name is well known to those who follow the press’s coverage of the department: Julia O’Rourke, who joined the P.F.D. in the second academy class to include women. In 1996, she sued the department for sexual harassment and won. The summary of the case in the judge’s decision reads like a textbook definition of sexual harassment: not only was O’Rourke confronted with graphic sexual talk and pornography at the station and subjected to sexual advances and comments about her breasts, she was also actively ostracized because of her gender. When she tried to remedy the issue by speaking with superiors, the decision notes, her complaints were disparaged or simply ignored.

O’Rourke is still a Providence firefighter, though she no longer works side-by-side with the guys on the trucks. A lieutenant, she is now a dispatcher. She declined to speak on the record for this story, but referred Rhode Island Monthly to one of her lawyers. “In that decision, the court makes clear that sexual harassment is based on your sex; it’s not necessarily just talk about sex,” Patricia Andrews says. “The intimidation, the exclusion, the treatment which is different between men and women is all part of a hostile work environment.”

The dynamic of a firehouse is very different from that of a typical 9-to-5 office job. Providence firefighters work two ten-hour day shifts and then two fourteen-hour overnight shifts, followed by four days off.
During those shifts, when they aren’t out on calls, they eat, sleep, shower and relax together in the station. Male and female firefighters share dormitory rooms and other facilities; it wasn’t until 2006 that women’s restrooms were built in most stations. The close quarters, combined with the sometimes life-or-death nature of the work, contributes to an environment in which a tiny misstep — or a coworker’s decision that you are unfit for the job, for whatever reason — can lead to a firefighter’s ostracism.

Without exception, the women interviewed for this story say they love their jobs. They spoke with great pride of being firefighters and with deep respect for the men with whom they work. And most of Providence’s male firefighters have no problem including women in their ranks. Many men are fully accepting of their female coworkers — the woman in the P.F.D. uniform is just one of the guys. Some are downright devoted to their “sisters” in the department. Others might not be so thrilled about women invading their old boys club, but treat them as equals nonetheless. But women throughout the fire service nevertheless face challenges that their male colleagues do not: they have to prove themselves, over and over, on every shift, on every run.

“Of course you do your best on every call. It’s that kind of job: you want to respond as best you can,” says Maureen McFadden, public information officer of the national nonprofit advocacy organization Women in the Fire Service. “But that’s not what’s going on outside of the fires. These women are often not spoken to, they are often excluded from social functions, often excluded from meals. They are made constantly to feel ‘other than’ or ‘less than’ [their male coworkers]. And that is discrimination.”

 The sense that a wrong word can destroy one’s reputation has silenced many women who might otherwise speak up. “The women are definitely afraid to come forward,” lawyer Andrews says.

“I’ll never be 100 percent comfortable, to tell you the truth,” says one woman, one of several firefighters who were granted anonymity in this article for fear of retribution. “There are some guys who are never going to accept that there are women on the job. They just don’t think you should be there, and that’s it.”

Another woman says she cried every time she got home from work. For two years. “The attitude is, we shouldn’t be there anyway; they didn’t ask us to come,” she says. “So what can you do? You deal with it.”

When Heidi walked into the station of the volunteer Harmony Fire Department, and Chief Charlie Aldrich interrupted his meeting to ask, politely, “Can I help you?” to this tiny teenager, she told him: “Yeah. I want to join your fire department.” She’d dreamt of becoming a firefighter since she was a little girl who’d run to the bottom of her street to watch the trucks careening out of the neighborhood fire station.

Aldrich welcomed her, so she got the waiver signed by her mom and then started showing up every week for training, to learn to ride the truck and work the pump and put up ground ladders. They still used the old pullup rubber boots then, and she was so small she had to wear them over her shoes. In time she started going out on calls, and in a little town like Harmony, a call in the neighborhood meant you might know the
person whose house was burning down. She worked on her best friend’s grandmother the night the woman died, crying the whole time. She helped deliver a neighbor’s baby.

firefighters And she never looked back. She stayed on with Harmony and earned her EMT certification while working a manufacturing job in Smithfield. In 1988, she joined the Smithfield fire department as a paid firefighter, but she found the pace too slow — she remembers sitting at the station, listening longingly over the scanners to the action going down in Providence. So when Providence began a new recruitment drive, she applied. And in 1991, when two women reported for duty as the first female P.F.D. firefighters, Heidi Verity, now Rivard, was among them.

Rivard plays down the trials of those early days. She was ready to work hard, and she did. She could handle having to prove herself 100 times over; that was part of firefighter tradition. The girlie magazines scattered about most of the department’s stations? Those she could ignore. The attention, the glances, the constant refrain of Can she do it? Not a problem — she knew she could. She’d been working as a firefighter for years and had done significant EMT training, so she joined the department with far more experience than the average recruit. The hard part was becoming just another new recruit. “When I came on, I acted like one of the guys — but I didn’t look like one of the guys,” she says. “So for me, it was harder because guys were having a hard time talking around me.”

“I have extreme respect for the early women who came on, because the guys made it very clear that they were unwelcome,” says Harmony Chief Aldrich, who is now retired from active duty. “The males didn’t want them there. . . .To this day, there’s probably still resentment. I think you’re always going to find that, the male-female thing: ‘They shouldn’t be doing this. They can’t do it as well as I can do it.’ Which is a proven fallacy.”

The myth that women can’t do fire service work has been frustratingly difficult to dispel. True, a firefighter’s work can be extremely physically challenging. On a given day a firefighter who’s “on the pipe” for an engine company drags as much as 200 pounds of fully charged fire hose up the stairs of a burning building; a rescue firefighter carries a 250-pound victim from the top floor of a triple-decker; a firefighter on a ladder company rips holes in a slate roof with an axe. Traditional thinking says that women just don’t have the upper-body strength to do the work. But Rivard and the thousands of other women firefighters in the country have proven that this is simply untrue.

“Everybody kind of finds their niche,” says firefighter Cindy Kiers, who in fourteen years on the P.F.D. has worked in all three types of companies. “Like you have to compensate for being short, not having maybe the upper-body strength — guys are bigger; it’s just a physical thing. You can still do it, but you have to find a little bit different way to do it.”

As a firefighter on Engine 14, Kiers often is the first person to enter a burning building. With her partner, she’s responsible for getting the fire hose in, the flames extinguished, and the victims safely out. This is the kind of work that the old-schoolers said women couldn’t do. “When I’m on the pipe, I make sure that I can get against something, lean against the wall, get lower, use that to my advantage.” she says. “Stop and think a second: How can I do this a little bit better without just the brute-strength part of it?”

Firefighting isn’t easy, but the women who do this work are devoted to it. Plus, the job pays well, and the benefits are good. The schedule, while it can be grueling, suits many single parents, with four days on and then four off. You can put in your twenty years and then retire with a pension. So why aren’t there more Heidi Rivards? More women firefighters and more in leadership positions?

The people interviewed for this story had a hard time answering that question. Some suggested that women might shy away from physical jobs — yet the women who have succeeded in the department are examples to the contrary. Others note that the small numbers of women firefighters mean that there are few role models for girls who might consider the fire service as a career.

But many in the field say that change has to come from the top. “There has been active discrimination in hiring women,” says Maureen McFadden, of Women in the Fire Service, “so just being inclusive after you’ve discriminated against a group for decades is not enough, and it doesn’t work.”

Under Providence’s affirmative action plan, the fire department would ideally represent the surrounding community. Does the Providence Fire Department look like the city of Providence, or the state of Rhode Island? With thirteen women out of a total of 450 firefighters in the department? As McFadden says, “Those are the numbers that tell a truer story.”

 “The fire department culture has traditionally been male — traditionally white male, actually,” says Olayinka Y. Oredugba, equal employment opportunity officer for the city of Providence. “There are active steps being taken toward increasing the number of women and minority candidates.” For the 2006 recruitment, for example, the city brought in a consultant to help train female applicants for the physical-agility exam, which has in the past proved an obstacle for them, according to Oredugba.

But the city’s recruitment efforts have focused mainly on minority candidates rather than women, Oredugba acknowledges. “I think we do need to step up and do more that is singularly geared toward female recruitment,” she says.

“The officer on a shift is ‘the man in charge,’even if she’s a woman.”

Melissa Talbot was working as a prison guard when she heard that the P.F.D. was looking to hire its first women firefighters, in 1990. She joined the department alongside Rivard the following year. Talbot’s current company, Ladder 5, does ventilation, opening holes in a burning building to let the heat and smoke out. As a ladderman you’re either inside with the engine company, forcing entries and ripping holes in walls, or standing on top of the house, tearing open the roof with an axe or a chainsaw. You always remember your first fire, and Talbot remembers the one she fought her first day on a ladder truck. A couple of kids were trapped inside a house so hot that cockroaches were crawling out from under the roof shingles.

After sixteen years on the job, Talbot isn’t interested in talking about the challenges women face. The way she sees it, that kind of talk only highlights differences between males and females. “It’s not man-versus-woman on this job,” she says. “It’s more about personalities and job performance; that’s what’s going to separate you.” To women like Talbot, being a good firefighter is about doing your job, and doing it damn well. If women were “under the microscope” when they first joined the department, well, you just had to work harder. You keep your mouth shut, do what you’re told, and pay attention to what’s going on. Do your job. Find your own way to fit in.

Rivard seems to have found a comfortable middle ground. Maybe it’s just one of the hazards of the job that every once in a while you work with somebody who still believes women don’t belong in a firehouse.

“There’s probably a few people that that’s in their head,” she says. “But you know, that’s an individual you can’t change. That’s a zebra whose stripes are already made. You go on ahead and think that way — I’m going to go on doing the best job I can. I’m not going to waste my breath on that person.”

Several hours before the rollover on I-95 snarls miles of rain-slicked highway, Rivard and Lippacher return to the station under low-lying clouds. It’s near the start of the night’s shift, though the partners have already been on for twenty-four hours straight. Rivard tries not to do much overtime these days; besides the fact she wants to spend as much time as possible with her son, Kyle, who’s eight years old, taking overtime on these busy rescue shifts is a recipe for burnout. But she has some major car repairs coming up, and Kyle is getting braces.

They’re lucky tonight to make it back to the Branch Avenue station just in time for the call of “all hot” — dinnertime. It’s a good night when the rescue team actually gets to eat a full meal without a call coming in. Most shifts, they end up wrapping up their plates mid-meal, sometimes more than once. After you heat a steak three times, it starts to taste like shoe leather.

Arthur Silva and Wayne Oliveira, firefighters on Engine 2, have cooked up a hearty supper of pork chops, green beans, and beans and rice, and the firefighters eat and chat and half-watch the TV news.

Silva and Oliveira have worked beside Rivard since she first came on, including at the 2003 Abbott Street fire, and they talk about her with obvious affection. “She’s my little sister,” Oliveira says.

While they eat, they reminisce about Rivard’s early days on the job. On her first day, Rivard remembers, a captain in her station gathered everyone outside to take a photograph. “This is history,” he told her.

At the time there were no separate facilities for women; on overnights, Rivard slept in the dormitory with the men. “Arthur and I offered to move her bed around to the other side of the lockers so she could have her privacy,” Oliveira says. “Heidi said ‘Hell, no!’ ” He laughs.

“I was like, ‘What difference does it make? I can still hear you fart,’ ” Rivard says.

She describes those first days as difficult but rewarding. “I was just scared out of my mind, and I was going to do my job 200 percent, because I knew I had to — because I knew there was just all eyes on me,” she says. “The guys in my station befriended me, like, immediately, but they had a lot of eyes on them, a lot of people calling them, asking: What’s she like? What’s she doing? How’s it going? But I kept my mouth shut for the most part, and I think overall I do have a very good reputation on the job. And I’m going to tell you something: I worked very, very, very hard for that. Because your reputation can go in a poof, anybody’s — mine, a guy’s, anybody’s. With just the simplest mistake, an accident. So it’s hard.”

All newcomers to the department get hazed to some degree. Fraternity-style pranks are common: the beds in the shared dormitory are a major target, often short-sheeted or put up on soda cans. Firefighters get their bed powdered; they’ll climb into bed in the dark for a quick nap between runs — many rescue firefighters sleep fully clothed, “ready-wrapped” for the next call — and wake up at three in the morning to find their navy blue uniform white with baby powder. New firefighters get teased and tricked and jabbed; verbal hazing, too, is widespread.

And while some of it is friendly, there’s a serious side to it, too: as a new guy, you’re getting tested, and your reputation can be shaped by how you react. “You can’t have a thin skin. If you can’t take it, you’ll never make it,” says one male battalion chief, who asked not to be identified because of his involvement in the O’Rourke case. “It’s personality: you’ve got to have the right makeup. Because believe me, if they know that you can’t take it, they’ll eat you alive.”

Women new to the department face unique challenges when it comes to this kind of initiation. On one hand, the hazing can seem more targeted — sexual jokes that the guys may laugh off can seem too personal, or comments about women’s firefighting abilities can make them feel singled out. Alternatively, since women
remain something of a novelty in the department, they may find themselves excluded by not being subjected to teasing or pranks. And hazing is, for its faults, a critical part of the bonding experience.

“There were a couple guys who used to really antagonize each other, short-sheet the bed or put newspapers under the bed,” Rivard recalls. “I used to sleep in the dorm, and I remember them doing all kinds of stuff to each other. But with me, they were courteous, I guess, or just being respectful.”

One night she came in after a late rescue run, and as she took off her shoes she noticed that the bed was too high. She cautiously bumped it with her hip and the bed went crashing off its foundation of soda cans with an echoing Bah-boom! “And the guys are all giggling, tee-hee-hee-hee,” Rivard remembers. “It felt good, honestly, to be teased, because it meant they were comfortable now, we’re getting used to each other. It was a good thing.”

But the line between hazing and harassment is a delicate one. And women face a challenge little-known to their male colleagues: despite years of successful service, they find themselves working beside men who still refuse to acknowledge that women belong on a fire department. “A lot of them accept us and want to move forward with us,” one woman says. “But where you may feel seven out of ten guys accept you, the three that don’t, you don’t want to offend them by talking about it. If you talk about this stuff, it’s only going to bring animosity and hostility.”

So you let some things go, and you pick your battles carefully. Nevertheless, over time all the “little things” can contribute to a sense that women are not fully welcome: The fact that women were without separate restrooms for more than ten years.

The male-biased language of the profession. Memos from higher-ups will require “all men” to report to duty — when what’s meant is “all firefighters.” Those who work on ladder trucks, male or female, are known as “laddermen.” The officer on a shift is “the man in charge,” even if she’s a woman.

“Some will say, ‘It’s just a word, it’s not that important,’ ” says Acting Rescue Lieutenant Lori Franchina. “But it’s not just a word. It’s the word on the bathroom door.”

At a barren South Providence corner where weeds grow like dry bones through the cracks of a sidewalk glittering with broken glass, a woman in blue jeans lies crumpled beside a chain-link fence, her body shaking with the force of her crying. A police officer is on his haunches near her; firefighters from the Allens Avenue engine company stand at a polite distance. Rivard steps out of her truck and the police officer stands, ceding authority to her. “He raped me,” the woman says, looking up. “He raped me.”

Rivard’s presence seems to calm the woman a little, and she allows Rivard to help her up, to lead her into the truck. Two police officers follow them in. Sexual assault cases are among the toughest. You have to get certain medical information, of course, but you have to do it carefully; as Rivard says, “You’re trying to get an-swers without violating that person all over again.”

This is one part of the job that isn’t mentioned in the old story that women can’t do a firefighter’s work. Today’s firefighters face challenges ranging from helping a distraught victim of sexual assault to dealing with hazardous materials or even terrorist threats. Brainpower is as important as brawn, physical and mental agility more essential than brute strength. In this context, a woman who can’t haul 200 pounds is
as valuable to the Providence Fire Department as a man who can.

City representatives say that it has become a priority to fix the system to ensure that women firefighters are treated fairly. “In the past — there was maybe a feeling that sometimes a situation was, quote-unquote, swept under the rug. Now that isn’t allowed to happen,” says Oredugba, the Providence EEO officer.

“If there’s a complaint, it is immediately followed up on and acted upon accordingly, even if it involves disciplinary action.”

Most women interviewed for this story agreed that change is happening, however gradually. “I think we’ve come a long way,” Lori Franchina says. “The women that are here should be here. We’re making friends, we’re doing it, we’re getting by. We are moving forward as a group, male and female. Is it perfect yet? It’s progressively becoming more accepting, tolerating. It’s slow, but it’s happening.”

And maybe someday soon the person at the top will be a woman; Rivard’s next promotion would make her a battalion chief. She says she’s not ready for that step — it would mean a desk job, and she craves the adrenaline rush of working the streets. But it’s not easy.

At the end of her shift, at 7 a.m., Rivard wakes from a brief nap to have coffee with the guys before heading home. Watching her sharing stories, teasing and laughing, it’s easy to see why firefighters so often compare their departments to families. “These guys are my brothers,” she says.

They exchange stories about their shifts. The engine company had a busy night, too, what with the pileup on I-95 and a false box alarm that came in around 3 a.m. “I feel like we’re on rescue!” Oliveira jokes to Rivard.

Firefighters judge a night on how many runs go out after midnight. Three, you’ve got something to complain about. Four or five, it’s a rough night. Rivard and Lippacher had six. There was the taxi ride for the “frequent flyer” they pick up every week at various eating establishments around town, always complaining of abdominal pain and generally trying to get out of paying his check. The baby with the rash on its belly. The college kid who’d got his face bloodied by a fellow partygoer. The forced entry into a third-floor apartment to check on a woman who turned out to be sleeping. The motor vehicle accident. The sexual assault.

“The runs all blend together,” Rivard admits. “People ask, ‘Do you remember this one?’ Nope. You can’t spend too much time worrying about the kid with the busted-up face, the baby with the rash. . . . There’s some runs that stick with me a little longer than others, but as I drive home, as the wind blows by me, so does my memory. It stays back there on the highway.” And so she says goodbye to the guys, climbs into her truck, and drives home to her son, letting the wind wash the long night away.

Leave a reply