JJ Edgmon takes the Candidate Physical Ability Test, for entrance into the LAFD Academy. Edgmon said the most difficult part is the sledgehammer portion, in which trainees must hammer in a panel at least two inches. Both men and women must complete the test while wearing a 50-pound vest.
For the first time in five years, the Los Angeles Fire Department is hiring new firefighters. More than 13,000 people have applied – but fewer than 1 percent of the applicants will make it. The LAFD hopes that many of those accepted will be women.
This year marks the second time Dana Rancatore, 32, has applied to be a firefighter.
"It was either between this or being a special ed teacher, so I became a special ed teacher," Rancatore said. "But firefighting is really what I strive to do."
She was at the Frank Hotchkin Memorial Training Center earlier this year to practice for the CPAT – the Candidate Physical Ability Test. An exhausting obstacle course that mirrors real challenges faced by firefighters, and every L.A. City firefighter must pass it.
The test is hard for everybody – but especially for women, who typically have less upper body strength than men. Applicants have 10 minutes and 20 seconds to complete feats of strength and endurance, all while wearing at least 50 extra pounds of weight on their chest.
Applicants must trudge up a stair-climber, run with hoses, carry chainsaws and drag a 165-pound dummy. Not to mention navigating a narrow, pitch black tunnel that's not for the claustrophobic.
Dana fell short on her practice CPAT course, as many do. This test is a major reason why only about 102 of the fire department's 3,239 uniformed personnel are women.
Ramped up recruiting, training efforts
The LAFD has an active recruitment unit. Firefighter LaMorris Wilcher, who's been a recruiter for seven years, said they've beefed up efforts to attract a more diverse pool of applicants.
"Our main recruitment effort is going out to the community – different colleges, military bases, different job fairs – to introduce the fire service to individuals who may not have woke up that morning thinking about being a firefighter," said Wilcher.
About 11 percent of LAFD firefighters are black; 31 percent are Latino; and 50 percent are white. Budget constraints froze hiring in 2008, but the department is hiring again and it's looking to diversify.
"Los Angeles is a very diverse city, it’s one of the [most] diverse cities in the world, so we want our fire department to reflect the community that we’re serving," said Wilcher. "When we talk about diversity we’re not just talking about the color of someone’s skin, the ethnicity, the gender. We’re talking about the things that they bring to the table, their background, their experience and their education."
Becoming a firefighter is an extensive, 10-step process. Many women who've joined the ranks of the LAFD have backgrounds as personal trainers, seasoned athletes or ex-military. That experience can help give them a leg up on the physical portion of the test, and the LAFD helps them further by offering CPAT tips, like using leg strength when upper body strength falls short.
3 percent of the LAFD are women
The intense, physical nature of firefighting, plus the difficult testing process, explains in part why there are few women in the LAFD ranks. But there's something else, too: LAFD didn't hire women firefighters until the early 1980s.
Roxanne Bercik was one of the department's first female firefighters.
“When I first came on, it was back in 1984," Bercik said. "And I’ll be real open and honest about this: Women were not readily accepted in the fire service. In fact, back in that time, there were actually some folks that still had the shirts on that said ‘No Women.’"
But that didn't stop Bercik from quickly climbing the ranks to become the Deputy Chief of the Bureau of Training and Support Services. She's been with the department for more than 28 years and now helps prepare applicants for the job.
Gayle Sonoda is a recent LAFD hire. She's in paramedic school with aspirations of moving up through the department.
“I didn’t think I wanted to be a firefighter because I had never seen a female firefighter before, and when I did my rideouts I saw one," said Sonoda. "She was a little bit bigger than me, but it just gave me hope, I guess, or inspired me to do that as well.”
And in comparison to other major cities, L.A. is actually leading the pack: Only about 2 percent of Chicago's firefighters are women; in New York, the percentage of women in the firefighting ranks hovers around 0.25 percent.
Now the LAFD has a daunting task ahead as recruiters and trainers whittle down the number of applicants from the thousands to the hundreds in an attempt to put together a fire academy class for the beginning of next year.
But no matter how physically prepared the female applicants are, Bercik said there are still social stigmas they must overcome.
"When you watch the news media you’ll even hear the news media say 'fireman,'" she said. "So I think it’s a cultural shift for a lot of people, first of all to understand that women can be firefighters, just like they can be police officers and construction workers and journeymen and any other job they may want to be."
"President of the United States? We can do that," Bercik said.