Taking the Urbandale Fire Department candidate test is one of the most challenging things we’ve ever done. It’s literally cost us blood, sweat and tears. We went through it because the department wants more women in its ranks. That’s why Chief Jerry Holt asked personal trainer Angie Gallagher to create an exercise program to improve our chances.
Mary Davis passed the Des Moines test and was the first woman hired in 1982. She had no idea she’d be breaking new ground. “I just thought if you can do it, you do things. So I never thought that there weren’t women firefighters, but I never thought about it,” she explains.
Many other women did. The same year the Des Moines Fire Department hired Davis, 42 women gained the right to serve on the New York City Fire Department. Their landmark lawsuit highlighted the city’s discriminatory hiring practices and paved the way for generations of future female firefighters.
But the victory was not the end of the battle. Once on the department, many women faced retaliation, including death threats. Davis doesn’t recall anything that serious, but Chief John TeKippe says, at the time, most men on the department were skeptical – at best. “I think Mary’s initial experience is a great credit to Mary and a not very great story about men in the fire service. It was ‘she can’t do my job and she shouldn’t be here.”
Mary proved she could do the job. She’d spent years in the National Guard and working construction jobs so the male-dominated environment didn’t bother her. However, she recognizes that the fire service isn’t for everyone.
“You come home with black boogers from a fire. You can’t get the smell out of your hair for a couple days. You don’t just do your eight hours and come home and still have all your fingernails pretty,” she laughs, “that sounds sexist but it is reality!”
Captain Linda Frangenberg is one of 21 women who followed in Davis’ footsteps. “I don’t feel like a pioneer,” she says, “I’m just a firefighter.” She says gender isn’t what makes a good firefighter, it’s passion.
Coming up Tuesday at 10 p.m. Trial By Fire takes a closer look at the physical fitness tests required to become a firefighter.