Fire departments reach out to women at job fair

Firefighting can be a tremendously difficult and challenging job. But it's a popular one for men, mostly. Only five percent of California's firefighters are women. KPCC's Julie Small says there's a job fair Saturday in the city of Orange, where departments are reaching out to both sexes.

Rich Alarcon: The first event is the equivalent of walking up 11 flights of stairs.

Small: Rich Alarcon runs the Candidate Physical Ability Test Center. There, he puts firefighting candidates through 11 grueling minutes of exercises that demonstrate whether they've got the base level of strength they'll need to fight fires.

Hopefuls have to pull ladders and hoses, drag a 160-pound dummy across a room, crawl through an obstacle course in the dark, punch in drywall, and break down doors.

Alarcon: What they're going to do is take a 10-pound sledgehammer and they're going to strike the target on that device until they hear the buzzer.

Small: Plenty of men fail the test. An even higher percentage of women fail. Alarcon says it doesn't have to be that way. More than half the women who practice the test and learn proper techniques to tackle it eventually pass.

At a testing center in Sacramento, Alarcon demonstrated how to swing a sledgehammer with a level motion, instead of like a baseball bat.

[Sound of Alarcon hitting sledgehammer against door three times, buzz from completing the test]

Small: Alarcon knocked the door down in just three swings. Many candidates swing 10 to 20 times.

Alarcon: That's why proper technique is really important in this. 'Cause I saved a lot of energy doing it right rather than doing it wrong.

Small: That's what Laura Hernandez did.

Laura Hernandez: This job is completely doable.

Small: Hernandez is a firefighter and paramedic in the town of Tracy in Northern California. She passed her physical ability exam about a decade ago. Now she mentors women candidates who show up at testing centers.

She shares techniques that help them compensate for their smaller size and weight. Hernandez also helps women overcome self-consciousness about taking the test in front of men.

Hernandez: The females are a little reluctant to practice certain events, a little reluctant to step in. Because they feel they're being looked at.

Small: Although she's never experienced it, Hernandez said women hear a lot of horror stories about male colleagues hazing female recruits. She owes her career to a couple of male firefighters who encouraged her to apply for the job.

Hernandez likes to share that experience with women candidates. She said her story helps them summon up the moxie to take on the test – and the job.

Hernandez: We're trying to get them in a spot where they're comfortable, where they can come out here and say, "I know I can pass this test – because I practiced it, because I know how to do it, because I know all the techniques, I know what it takes.

"I've been taught by somebody who was in the same position. And I feel confident in coming out here and finishing the test." When you give them that level of confidence, their whole mentality is completely different. They're not afraid to perform under pressure.

Small: Laura Hernandez said they'll need that fearlessness every day. She hopes more women will take up the challenge of firefighting. She can't imagine doing any other job.