Battalion chief Anita Paratley talks to millennial firefighter Collette Ellerman in the third episode of the Moneyish original series Good Company.
When Anita Paratley became a firefighter in San Francisco in 1989, there were no women’s bathrooms or locker rooms at her firehouse. She and other women had to share facilities with men, putting up a sign or curtain for privacy.
Paratley, then 32, was part of a second wave of women hired into the San Francisco Fire Department under a court-ordered diversity mandate. The department’s first seven women had joined two years earlier. It was seeing those women at a recruitment meeting that convinced Paratley to leave her job driving a truck for FedEx and try firefighting, a job that would combine her love of physicality with the people skills she’d honed in an earlier career as a social worker.
“It was the best thing I ever did in my life,” she said. “It just fit me, because I like people, I like to help, I like excitement. It’s a real honor to serve people.”
Paratley, 60, was born and raised on Long Island and returns to New York City regularly to see friends and family. On a recent trip, she met Collette Ellerman, a 27-year-old firefighter with one year on the job, at her firehouse in Jersey City. The two talk in the third episode of Good Company, a Moneyish original series that matches millennials with veterans in their field for mentorship and conversation. (Watch the video.)
The San Francisco Fire Department has long since made accommodations for women, and almost 29 years later counts 269 women among its 1,795 uniformed members — one of the largest populations of women firefighters in the country, according to United Fire Service Women, a group dedicated to supporting women in the department. Paratley is one of four female battalion chiefs, and the department is led by a woman, Chief Joanne Hayes-White.
Women have been slower to join the ranks of career firefighters in New Jersey. Ellerman, who joined the Jersey City Fire Department in 2017, was the department’s eighth woman. Bergen County, N.J., hired its first two paid women firefighters in 2017, and the city of Elizabeth had its first female firefighter join June 1. (Nationally, just 3.5% of the country’s career firefighters were women in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
Ellerman came to firefighting after working as an aquatics director at a community center, where she taught lifeguarding and CPR. But she said she always knew she wanted something more.
“The thing I like most about this job is that it really is a brother and a sisterhood,” Ellerman said. “What other job can you come to every day and you basically are with another member of your family, and you get to help people, and make a good salary and a good pension?”
As for why New Jersey still has relatively few women firefighters, Laura Single, president of Fire Service Women of New Jersey and a volunteer firefighter, described challenges like men not taking women seriously and being protective of what has historically been their territory.
But she added that she is seeing forward movement in the hiring and promotion of women. “Hopefully the difficulties will be fading away in the near future,” she said.
The International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services, which advocates for women in the profession, says on its website that the barriers women face are similar to those faced by any traditionally excluded group — issues like sexual harassment, skepticism and stations built to accommodate only one gender.
Lawsuits have brought attention to some of these issues: In recent months, the Houston and Chicago fire departments have faced suits alleging discrimination and harassment, and two female battalion chiefs filed federal civil rights charges against the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in Virginia, saying the department retaliated against them for speaking out about discrimination.
For Paratley, joining her department under a court order created an extra challenge, but she went on to have a long career that began with the San Francisco Earthquake of 1989, her first assignment as a new recruit.
“Even the staunchest person that dug their heels in would be the first one at a fire to say, ‘No, you’ve got to cut the hole this way,’ or ‘This is how you have to pump,’” she said. “They don’t really care what you look like or who you are, once they see your work ethic.”
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