Taking the Heat: The First Women Firefighters of New York City

The story of the first women firefighters in New York City

Premieres on PBS's Independent Lensthe Emmy Award-winning Series Hosted by Edie Falco, Tuesday, March 28, at 10pm (Check Local Listings)

Cara White, 843-881-1480, carapub@aol.com
Mary Lugo, 770-623-8190, lugo@negia.net
Randall Cole, 415-356-8383 x254, randall_cole@itvs.org
Desiree Gutierrez, 415-356-8383 x244, desiree_gutierrez@itvs.org 

Visit the program companion website 

(San Francisco)—What if your gender was a disqualifying factor in applying for a job? And what if when you were eventually allowed to apply, the rules were changed to make it impossible for you to qualify? What if after taking legal action you got the job, but then faced overwhelming discrimination and hostility from your co-workers? What if you became the lightning rod—and remained one for more than 20 years—because you stood up to voice concern? All of these questions and more are answered in TAKING THE HEAT, the untold true story of Brenda Berkman and the first women firefighters of New York City. This is their story—told in their own words—about how they survived in one of the most macho organizations in the country, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). TAKING THE HEAT, narrated by Susan Sarandon, will be broadcast on Independent Lens, hosted by Edie Falco, on Tuesday, March 28, at 10pm. 

To many people today, the harrowing experiences these women firefighters faced in the 1980s seem remote and unfathomable. But they were all too real for Berkman, who fought her way and led other women to become members of the FDNY. Through her story and stories of other courageous pioneer women firefighters, TAKING THE HEAT explores the price these women paid to serve their communities. The story begins in 1977, as New York City emerged from a financial crisis. The FDNY had lifted its 11-year hiring freeze and begun advertising for new recruits. Also, it was now against the law for the FDNY to bar women from applying to be firefighters. As women began to apply for the first time, the FDNY unveiled a new firefighter entrance exam, one the New York City Assistant Personnel Director described as the “most arduous test we have ever given to anyone.” When 90 women (of the 400 women eligible to take it) showed up to take the physical abilities part of that entrance test, all of them failed. 

This story would perhaps have ended right there, were it not for Berkman. A marathon runner and a law student at New York University, Berkman had taken and failed Test 3040. She brought a class-action suit against New York City and the FDNY on behalf of all the women applicants. That lawsuit began landmark gender discrimination litigation. This is where the story turns dark. There was widespread resentment among male firefighters, who perceived that a liberal judge made it possible for women to join the department based on what the male firefighters dubbed “the soft test.” Once in the firehouses, the women faced an array of hostile acts, including death threats. The women state that male firefighters were constantly tampering with their safety equipment, sometimes even bleeding all the oxygen out of their air tanks. There were allegations of women being thrown out of meals and being subjected to obscenities and other verbal abuse, physical violence, and even sexual molestation. 

According to the women, more often than not it was not that every man in the department was actively hostile toward them, but that one or two persons in each firehouse harassed and intimidated the women while other firefighters did nothing to stop them. For many of these women, fighting fires actually became the easy part of the job. Today, as these pioneers retire one by one, their stories run the risk of being lost forever. TAKING THE HEAT preserves the stories and honors the women who served in the face of opposition, harassment and danger. 

The companion website for TAKING THE HEAT (www.pbs.org/independentlens/takingtheheat/) features detailed information on the film and an interview with the filmmaker as well as links and resources pertaining to the film's subject matter. The site also features a Talkback section for viewers to share their ideas and opinions, preview clips of the film and more. 

Director: Bann Roy
Narrator: Susan Sarandon
Producer: Barbara Welter-Mullin
Executive Producer: Michael Anderson
Director of Photography: Ruben O'Malley
Sound Recordist: Jason Blackburn 

ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS BANN ROY (Director) In the late 1980s, a time when India was opening up its economy to giant multinational companies, Bann Roy, born in Calcutta, was well on his way to a successful directing career in the world of commercial spots. Just after finishing what was considered a breakthrough campaign of national spots for Mitsubishi, Bann walked away from this career. His dislike for the unabashed glitz and glamour of the advertising industry led him, ironically, to the mecca of the showbiz world, Los Angeles, where he enrolled in the graduate program in visual anthropology at the University of Southern California. After graduating, Bann began working as an editor for network shows with such directors and producers as Peter Faiman (Crocodile Dundee, The Sydney Olympics), Phil Keoghan (The Amazing Race, Adventure Crazy) and, more recently, Tom Forman (the CBS documentary 9-11, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition). While earning a living in television editing, Bann has been consistently building toward a directing career. Over the last 11 years, Bann has directed three award-winning documentaries: Pepino Mango Nance, For Here or To-go? and Six Weeks. All of his films have dealt with issues of the marginalization of human lives. 

TAKING THE HEAT Participants 
Brenda Berkman is a captain in the FDNY, fighting fires and responding to other emergencies as the commander of Engine 239 in Brooklyn. Along with her firefighting duties, Capt. Berkman has led FDNY initiatives in recruitment, safety and EEO training. Berkman is also an adjunct instructor for the U.S. National Fire Academy. Capt. Berkman began her career in firefighting in 1982, after winning the federal sex discrimination lawsuit she initiated that resulted in the hiring of New York City's first women firefighters. She founded and led the United Women Firefighters organization in New York City and has also led the national organization of women firefighters, Women in the Fire Service, as a trustee and as president of the Board. A noted writer and speaker on issues relating to women in nontraditional employment, Berkman has been interviewed on numerous national and international radio and television programs. Capt. Berkman has traveled abroad many times, to countries including Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom, on speaking tours for organizations such as the United States Information Agency. From 1996 to 1997, Capt. Berkman served as a White House Fellow in the Office of the Secretary of Labor. She is the first and only professional firefighter to be awarded this prestigious leadership development fellowship in the 40-year history of the program. Berkman earned a B.A. summa cum laude from St. Olaf College, an M.A. in American history from Indiana University, a J.D. from New York University and an M.S. in fire protection management from the City University of New York. She is in the process of completing the National Fire Academy's four-year Executive Fire Officer program. 

Other Key On-Air Participants (in alphabetical order) 
Patricia Fitzpatrick – retired FDNY firefighter; another member of the first batch of women firefighters of New York City; she fractured her spine in 1997 when a ceiling collapsed on her during a fire.
Terry Golway – author of So Others Might Live, a book about the history of the FDNY.
Battalion Chief Rochelle Jones – the first woman to reach the rank of Battalion Chief in the FDNY.
Robert King – lead attorney in the landmark class-action lawsuit Berkman vs. The City of New York.
Nicholas Mancuso – former president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association; opposed Judge Sifton's ruling on the firefighter entrance exam.
Dr. William McArdle – professor of exercise physiology and an expert witness in the Berkman lawsuit.
Brian McMorrough – retired FDNY firefighter; worked in the same area as Brenda Berkman.
Frank Miale – retired FDNY Battalion Chief; supports the notion of women in the FDNY, but disagrees with the way they came on the job.
Tom Ryan – retired FDNY firefighter; the first male firefighter in the FDNY to come out as gay; worked with Brenda Berkman and supports her cause.
Laura Sager – Berkman's attorney and her first legal counsel in the case.
Gloria Steinem – one of the most significant figures in the modern feminist movement; founder of Ms. Magazine; has written extensively on the subject of women's empowerment.
Elbert Washington – former president of the Vulcan Society, the fraternal organization of African American firefighters; supported the women's cause.

Posted on January 31, 2006