Strength & Stamina: Women in the Seattle Fire Department

The Seattle Fire Department has grown through the years to accommodate Seattle's expansion, both in population and in size. The Department historically has been close-knit, proud of the loyalty of its members. From its early days as a volunteer unit, its roots were as a social and fraternal organization. Gaining members from the armed services, the fire fighting unit was called the "Combat Division," and by the mid-twentieth century had developed a strong male culture. The story of the women who changed the image of female firefighters from the unusual to the usual is one of courage, hard work, and perseverance.

Early Years: 1883-1915

The City of Seattle was incorporated in 1869 but with no established means to protect the City from "accidents by fire." Provisions in earlier charters were made for regulating markets, burying the dead, and preventing animals from running at large, but fire protection was not added until 1883. That year, the Charter created a fire department and provided for "fire engines and other apparatus, and a sufficient supply of water, and to levy and collect special taxes for these purposes...." Equipment purchases were funded, but not firefighters.

Seattle had seven volunteer fire companies by the late 1880s. Following the devastating Great Fire of 1889, a professional fire department was created with five district fire stations and a fire boat. By 1895 the Department consisted of "sixty two men fully paid and ten men at Fremont partially paid. "In the early years of the Fire Department, there was a thin line between one's personal and work lives. The Department acted as an intermediary when outside debts needed to be paid off, bore in mind reasons for tardiness when assigning demerits, and commonly received letters from landlords and others inquiring about employment status of the firefighters.

By 1909, the number employed in the Seattle Fire Department had grown to "a total of 228 full paid men" and by 1916, the number of those in the "manual force" was 611. A merit system was introduced in 1914 to administer discipline for violation of rules; tardiness was the most common offense.

Fighting a fire on the Hinkley Block at Second and Cherry, 1908 Item 63803, Miscellaneous Prints, 9910-01, Seattle Municipal Archives Firemen outside first city hall, circa 1888 Courtesy of Paul Dorpat
Firefighters and fire engines at Station No. 14, Fourth Avenue South and Horton Street, 1927 Item 2821, Engineering Department Negatives, 2613-07, Seattle Municipal Archives Seattle Fire Department fire wagon in parade on First Avenue, 1902 Item 68488, Seattle Fire Department Central Files, 2801-03, Seattle Municipal Archives
Petition requesting a fire engine and other apparatus for Station No. 4 in 1885, signed by Thomas Stagg, G. A. Hill and Charles Baker File 990642, General Files, 1802-04, Seattle Municipal Archives

Fully Manned: 1915-1960

During World War I, the Chief expressed concern that the Department was not "fully manned." He noted in 1917 that "if the experienced and trained men continue to leave the Department it will surely cripple its efficiency very materially." However, the problem quickly righted itself after the war, as the 611 men on the manual force in 1917 increased to 652 by 1925.

A focus on training methods between the wars formed Seattle's reputation as a model for others in the nation on training. In 1921, a School of Instruction was implemented to "institute uniform and standardized methods for handling equipment and instructing members." Drill work and endurance and physical fitness tests were developed. Testing showed that physical decline coincided with an increase in age. Daily calisthenics were instituted in 1921, and were required for members of each shift for 15 to 30 minutes a day.

A new system of drill school instruction was implemented on September 1, 1934. Instead of practicing four months out of the year and only at downtown stations, the drills were performed all year around at each fire station. Drills were conducted randomly without advance notice so that stations had to be ready at any time.

Down in numbers again because of World War II, the Department made use of the Volunteer Auxiliary in 1943 and 1944. Trained and maintained as a unit of the regular Department, the Auxiliary was thanked by the Chief in his 1943 annual report. "Serving wholly without compensation, and as direct contribution to the war effort, they have donated thousands of man-hours of their own time in order that they may be prepared to defend this city from fires or any other catastrophe."

Men returned to the Department after the war, however, and morale was high. A new 8-hour shift was implemented in 1947, requiring the hiring of a large number of additional firefighters, as well as "intensified training." The 1947 annual report stated that those entering the Department from military service were an asset: "Their enthusiasm carried throughout the organization, and as a result, employee loyalty and morale reached new highs."

Morale continued to be high through the 1950s. Two-way radio capability was introduced in all first-line units in 1950; station wagons accompanied aid cars starting in 1958, enabling stretchers to be transported to hospitals immediately. By 1959 the Fire Department adopted a new fire code based on national standards. They also created a "revolutionary fire fighting curriculum" which was unique to Seattle. The most revolutionary event of the decade, however, was not mentioned in the annual report. In January 1959, Claude Harris, the first African-American firefighter, joined the Department. In 1985, he would become Fire Chief.

Hand-sketched Fire Department logo Seattle Fire Department Central Files, 2801-03, Seattle Municipal Archives Seattle Fire Department Annual Report cover, 1938 Seattle Fire Department Annual Reports, 1802-G4, Seattle Municipal Archives This sign was proposed in April 1930 by The Sports Association was an active branch of the Seattle Fire Department in the first half of the 20th century. A baseball team, an orchestra, and a trio were all organized under this branch at different times. In 1915, the band travelled to San Francisco to participate in the Seattle Day and Washington State Day ceremonies at the Panama-Pacific Exposition. By 1930, the Department had an eleven-piece orchestra, but no band. The orchestra and the trio performed at  

A Man Among Men: 1960-1975

The 1962 annual report noted that "fire-fighting has much in common with military arts" and starting in 1963 the annual report listed firefighters as part of the Combat Division. When the Public Relations Unit was added to the Department in 1964, one of their first projects was to release a profile of a firefighter: members of an "ancient profession," the "mark of a fire fighter is his devotion to his duty." The feeling coming back from putting out a fire was described as "the joy of a strong man who has conquered a worthy foe."

Public Relations was known as Public Affairs by 1969 but continued to build on the characteristics of dedication and protection of the people, and by 1969 described the firefighter as "a man among men." The 1960s saw continued growth in training as well as fire prevention work. In 1962 prevention was described as male work: "Complete and fair enforcement of the Fire Code and applicable sections of the Building Code through a program of continuing year around fire inspection of all effected [sic] buildings and occupancies are as fundamental to our fire prevention effort as are blocking and tackling to a football team."

The training division was centralized in 1964 and provided programs to all Fire Department personnel, including apparatus drills, first aid, breathing equipment, and tower drills. When the national training standards were established in 1968 they were remarkably similar to those in the Seattle Fire Department. After a lengthy planning period, a training program was established in 1968 at Seattle Community College for an Applied Science Degree in Fire Command and Administration. It was intended primarily for those in the Department seeking promotion.

Minority Recruitment and Women

In the late 1960s, a trainee program was established for minorities. The 1968 annual report said, "Simply stated, the plan consists of employing potentially capable men who lack necessary qualifications for immediate entrance into the Department and training them - for as long as four years, if necessary - until they are able to successfully compete for regular employment..." In the first year, three trainees passed the entrance exam and became members of the Department, and by 1971 there were 25. In 1973, a full-time Minority Affirmative Action Officer was appointed.

In the early 1970s, many of those who entered the Department from the military after World War II were ready to retire. A focus on recruiting resulted in 83 men in the 1973 recruit class, the largest to date in the Department's history. By 1989, largely because of the City's commitment to affirmative action, minorities constituted 20% of the Department's personnel.

On a national level, women were active firefighters as far back as the 1800s, but the positions were voluntary and primarily in rural, semi-urban and private fire departments. Women pursued careers as paid firefighters in the 1970s in several cities: Sandra Forcier in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1973, Judith Livers in Arlington County, Virginia in 1974, and Genois Wilson in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1975.

Although minority men were a focus of recruiting in the 1960s, women were not. The first woman to work in the Seattle Fire Department in any capacity was Marcella Delfel Hook, employed from 1942 to 1943 as a stenographer and clerical worker in the Chief's Office. A Seattle Firefighters Ladies' Auxiliary was formed in October 1966 to provide aid to families and assist at social events.

After Marcella Delfel Hook, other women were employed by the Fire Department through the 1960s, but all as clerical staff. For example, Mildred L. Oman, single and 23, was employed at almost the same time as Hook. Women often did not work more than two years. The reasons they cited for leaving included ill health, pregnancy, and pursuing more suitable employment. One woman, Hilde Meer, resigned because she was dissatisfied with the work; another, Barbara Ruth Lippert, left because the work was too hard to keep up with. In the early 1960s, women employees were more often married but still did not usually stay more than one or two years. Reasons for resignations included poor work record, enrolling in school, and pregnancy. In the few instances where men applied for certain clerical positions, they were told the position was "for female only."

Development of a Pre-Recruit Program

City Council Member Jeanette Williams, as head of the Human Resources and Judiciary Committee in the 1970s, was acutely aware of affirmative action issues. In 1974, Williams responded to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article that questioned the attitude of some in the Fire Department towards women, and asked the Office of Women's Rights to propose "that some type of procedure be set up to check up on this attitude problem...."

Mayor Wes Uhlman and Fire Chief Jack Richards exchanged correspondence in 1974 about bringing women firefighters into the Department. The City considered the possibility of using San Diego as a model; Chief Bell wrote from San Diego that its program was not successful as the first five females were terminated for "lack of required strength." Bell also warned Richards that in addition to the strength and agility issues, "You may also expect considerable reaction from your employees, their wives, and the public which quite probably will put you in a position of extreme criticism and condemnation regardless of what action you take....If you change any existing standards you will be charged with discrimination in favor of females, if you don't you will be discriminating against females."

To become a firefighter in 1975, applicants had to pass a written exam, oral interview, physical abilities test and Law Enforcement Officer and Firefighters (LEOFF) medical standards test. Successful completion of a ten-week recruit school was required as well as a six-month probationary employment period.

In 1975, the Seattle Fire Department heeded a 1974 affirmative action report and recruited women specifically to apply as firefighters. Although 125 women took the written exam that first year, only six were admitted to the class in March 1976. Of these, five resigned, citing lack of upper body strength as the reason. The sixth, Lori Lakshas, was dismissed and subsequently filed a discrimination charge. The Department observed there were two areas of deficiencies for women: physical and mechanical ability. As a result, a female pre-recruit training program was developed with the assistance of Dr. T. Lee Doolittle, a University of Washington kinesiology professor. The first pre-recruit class began in 1977.

Advertisement of fire fighter position opening, 1975 Courtesy of Bonnie Beers
Recruiting flyer Item 73062, Seattle Fire Department Slides, 2801-09, Seattle Municipal Archives
Recruiting flyer Box 1, Folder 12, Office of Women's Rights Women Firefighters Project Records, 8402-02, Seattle Municipal Archives
Recruiting notice Box 1, Folder 12, Office of Women's Rights Women Firefighters Project Records, 8402-02, Seattle Municipal Archives

The First Woman Firefighter in Seattle

The pre-recruit training program focused on strength training, especially upper body and leg muscles. The program also included study of technical subjects including manipulative tasks and mechanical background, knowledge often included in Industrial Arts classes for boys at the junior high and high school levels. Three of the five women who resigned from the 1976 recruit class were hired in January 1977 for the first female firefighter pre-recruit class. By mid-March, two of the three women had resigned, one due to injury. The third was Barbara (Bonnie) Beers. She continued in one-to-one instruction in technical training and did her physical training independently.

Because there was not another female pre-recruit training in 1977, Beers entered the minority male pre-recruit training in June 1977. She finished that successfully and went into the recruit class in December, entering a combat company in January 1978. The 5'9", 160-pound Beers had been a basketball player for the University of Washington. In an interview with The New York Times, Beers cited the physical rigor, as well as the monetary benefits and sense of personal accomplishment, as her challenges and rewards. She also stressed the psychological burden of being the first woman firefighter in the Department: "I get sick of the battering from every new person I meet. Having to explain and prove myself is wearing." Beers knew the men did not want her around. "They accept it. But, in general, they'd rather not have us around, rather not have to deal with it. I don't want to give the impression that I'm hated. But I'm not loved either."

The Fire Department called on Beers to help out with incoming female recruits and to provide input for the pre-recruit program. In 1982, Fire Chief Robert Swartout promoted her to Lieutenant over men with higher scores. "The exam cannot be the only criterion," he said. However, later in her career Beers felt she was passed over for promotions she deserved.

Barbara (Bonnie) Beers Photograph by Jim Loso. Courtesy of Bonnie Beers Bonnie Beers graduating from recruit class Item 73033, Seattle Fire Department Slides, 2608-09, Seattle Municipal Archives
Bonnie Beers at work as a firefighter Item 73029, Seattle Fire Department Slides, 2608-09, Seattle Municipal Archives Bonnie Beers training Item 73031, Seattle Fire Department Slides, 2608-09, Seattle Municipal Archives
Bonnie Beers and her recruit class Courtesy of Bonnie Beers

Early Discrimination

Several early recruits reported that they did not experience discrimination from other firefighters, but from other places. Lori Lakshas was one of six women in a 1976 recruit class. Five women resigned rather than be terminated by the Fire Department because of the assessment that they could not meet the physical requirements. Lakshas did not agree with the assessment that she was physically unable to perform some of the requirements. Chief Hanson told the Seattle Times on May 19, 1976, "She is physically incapable of performing the duties." Chief of Training Swartout stated specifically that she was unable to perform a one-man rescue carry. A top athlete in high school, and captain of the University of Washington swim team in 1975, Lakshas refused to resign and was terminated. On May 20, 1976, she filed a sex discrimination suit against the City.

During the investigation, the Office of Women's Rights found that the LEOFF testing was discriminatory in several ways. Three women had been disqualified on the basis of height when there was no height standard. No men were disqualified for this reason. Three women were disqualified on the basis of laboratory tests that showed anemia, pregnancy and a "probably thyroid adenoma." Subsequent tests by private physicians proved those results to be false. Other conditions used to disqualify applicants also turned out to be non-existent, including heart conditions, vision standards, poor teeth, and knee problems. Several women reported the doctors were very cold and rude.

Three years after the suit was filed, the Office of Women's Rights found that there was reasonable cause to believe Lakshas had been discriminated against in physical and medical exams, evaluation of a wrist injury and removal from disability status. But not until eight years later, in 1984, did the Department of Human Rights find the charge of sex discrimination to be true. The City awarded Lakshas $40,000 for back pay, legal fees, and interest.

The attention Lakshas and other women received angered many citizens. Echoing the San Diego Fire Chief's prediction, there were women who were not in favor of female firefighters. The wife of a firefighter wrote to the Chief and stated, "It is unfair to the public to put our lives into the hands of people who are only there due to sex or race...." In 1976 another woman wrote to ask the Chief to stop hiring women over men because of Equal Rights. "We cannot possibly be expected to put our confidence in these persons to save our lives when they aren't capable of passing the enrollment tests!"

Even Beers was not immune. In response to a 1978 editorial in the Seattle Times applauding Beers' achievements, a woman wrote to complain that "Beers did receive very special treatment and advantages unavailable to white male applicants....The tragedy is not that Barbara Beers made it through with special favors...but that this kind of thing is taking place throughout the country."

Women firefighters in training Item 73043, Seattle Fire Department Slides, 2801-09, Seattle Municipal Archives
Woman firefighter in training Item 73060, Seattle Fire Department Slides, 2801-09, Seattle Municipal Archives
Lisa Barron in training Item 73052, Seattle Fire Department Slides, 2801-09, Seattle Municipal Archives
Woman firefighter in training Item 73041, Seattle Fire Department Slides, 2801-09, Seattle Municipal Archives
Page 1 of determinations made by the Seattle Office of Women's Rights regarding Lori Lakshas' discrimination complaint Box 4, Folder 19, Mayor Charles T. Royer Legal Subject Files, 5274-03, Seattle Municipal Archives

The End of the Pre-Recruit Program

Partly because of costs, ending the female pre-recruit program was considered in 1978. In April 1977, Chief of Training Robert Swartout wrote Chief Frank Hanson about the program. "The more I work with this program the more obvious it becomes that this is not the answer to getting women or minorities into the Department. The limited numbers of people involved make it very cost-ineffective." He recommended the Department focus on recruiting women and minorities likely to pass the entrance examinations.

Although serious discussion ensued about discontinuing the female pre-recruit class in the 1979 budget cycle, the training continued until 1982; after this males and females were combined in pre-recruit classes. By 1982, Seattle had 31 female firefighters. In 1983, one pre-recruit class was conducted with seven women and seven minority males. All fourteen went on to the recruit class. In 1984, 9 women and 27 minority males were hired into firefighter positions. Also in 1984, the first woman entered the Paramedic Technician training program. The 1987 pre-recruit class included eight women who also completed recruit training. More and more women were entering the Department as firefighters.

By the late 1980s the Seattle Fire Department was considered a national model for the recruitment, hiring and retention of women as firefighters, providing assistance to other fire service organizations across the nation. Ten years after the first woman firefighter was hired, the Department had 54 women firefighters. By 1997 the Department was recruiting year-round, and providing study guides to potential candidates to let them know how to prepare for the difficult physical and written tests.

The National Association of Female Firefighters held its second annual conference in Seattle in 1987. Organized by the local chapter of the same organization, members Bonnie Beers, Carrie Oliver and Carol Solberg worked hard to make the conference happen. Considered a success, over 300 women gathered for the conference.

Firefighter training Item 73075, Seattle Fire Department Slides, 2801-09, Seattle Municipal Archives
Barbara Moberg in training Item 73073, Seattle Fire Department Slides, 2801-09, Seattle Municipal Archives Firefighter training Item 73072, Seattle Fire Department Slides, 2801-09, Seattle Municipal Archives
Conference program Courtesy of Bonnie Beers Welcome flyer in conference program Courtesy of Bonnie Beers

Pregnancy and Disability

Although the number of women firefighters increased in the 1980s, discriminatory practices did not disappear. In 1987, pregnancy became the focus of a discrimination suit when Carrie Oliver and Carol Solberg filed a lawsuit to collect disability benefits from the Seattle Fire Department Relief Association. They contended disability benefits should be available to them, just as they would be to other firefighters with temporary disabilities. Oliver and Solberg also argued they should be able to do desk work or other light duty jobs during pregnancy.

The case was won and King County Superior Court Judge Heavey ruled in 1988 that the Relief Association illegally discriminated against pregnant firefighters by denying them disability payments. Everyone in the Department benefited however, when light duty subsequently became a possibility for all members of the Fire Department with temporary disabilities.

The case split the women in the Department; some thought it should never have been filed. The Seattle Chapter of the Association of Female Firefighters disbanded a few years later.

An encouraging development within the Department was the promotion of several women firefighters. Bonnie Beers was promoted to Captain in 1992 and Battalion Chief in 1996. Molly Douce, hired in 1979, was promoted to Lieutenant in 1982, Captain in 1986, and Battalion Chief in 1992. Tamalyn Nigretto was hired in 1987 and promoted to Lieutenant in 1992, Captain in 1996 and Battalion Chief in 2000. Katie Maughan and Sue Rosenthal also were promoted to Captains.

The high numbers of women that entered the Department in the 1970s and 1980s were thinning out by the 1990s, however, and numbers of women entering were not as high. Discrimination charges had not run their course, either. In 1993, the City settled a sexual harassment suit with a female firefighter who had been on the force since 1983. Of 49 female firefighters who responded to a 1993 survey, 24 said they experienced some degree of sexual harassment.

Carrie Oliver, a plaintiff in the discrimination suit Seattle Fire Department Centennial Commemorative: 1889-1989, Seattle Fire Fighters Union Local 27, c. 1989. Courtesy of Bonnie Beers
Carol Solberg, a plaintiff in the discrimination suit Seattle Fire Department Centennial Commemorative: 1889-1989, Seattle Fire Fighters Union Local 27, c. 1989. Courtesy of Bonnie Beers
Oliver and Solberg's lawsuit resulted in a limited duty assignment policy for pregnant City employees. This policy primarily affected women in strength-dependent, non-traditional positions - not just firefighters, but City Light and Police employees as well. At the time the ordinance was passed, 628 women or 17% of all female employees for the City were employed in non-traditional occupations. Press release August 10, 1987, Box 11, Folder 5, Personnel Department Director's Records, 6000-04, Seattle Municipal Archives
Oliver and Solberg's lawsuit resulted in a limited duty assignment policy for pregnant City employees. This policy primarily affected women in strength-dependent, non-traditional positions - not just firefighters, but City Light and Police employees as well. At the time the ordinance was passed, 628 women or 17% of all female employees for the City were employed in non-traditional occupations. Press release August 10, 1987, Box 11, Folder 5, Personnel Department Director's Records, 6000-04, Seattle Municipal Archives
The ordinance guaranteeing light duty for pregnant City employees in non-traditional jobs was passed with a sunset clause which did not allow the ordinance to become final until it was established that no unanticipated costs or problems arose and that the policy worked smoothly. After three years, in 1990, the sunset clause on the ordinance was removed. Box 14, Folder 19, Office of Women's Rights Subject Files, 8401-01, Seattle Municipal Archives

Equal Terms?

In 1992 Captain Katie Maughan published the results of a questionnaire and interviews done with women in the Seattle Fire Department. The 69 women provided input on changes needed to safety equipment, facilities, promotions, mentoring, and more. Recruitment proved to be an important issue, and sexual harassment, facilities and protective gear and uniform clothing were identified as problems. Beers requested a transfer to a "downtown" company in October 1992. She analyzed the officer positions in the five busiest engine companies in the Department and noted that none of them had any women; she felt as though this limited her career opportunities. "It is important when you move up the career ladder to have 'downtown' or 'busy' company experience. This experience directly reflects your image as a proficient officer," she said.

Among the anonymous comments were:

  • "Allow women firefighters to work together....The biggest disservice this Department does to women firefighters is refusing to let women work together."
  • "Make a hard line approach to holding all Officers, including Battalion Chiefs, accountable for maintaining a hostile free work environment."
  • " women in busy fire stations, fireboats, etc. In order for peers to fully accept women firefighters, it must first come from management."

In 1994, Seattle's Public Safety Committee, chaired by City Council Member Margaret Pageler, met with the Fire Department leadership to address the concerns raised in the questionnaire. The resulting work plan included increased recruitment activity, Department-wide training on sexual harassment, a schedule for upgrading facilities to accommodate women, and ensuring that firefighting protective clothing to fit women was available within 30 days.

In 1999, the Seattle Women's Commission conducted a longer survey that incorporated the 1993 questions. In the time that elapsed between the two surveys, more women felt that Recruit School prepared them better for their job. Clothing and facilities improved. In general, women firefighters starting out in 1999 seemed better prepared for what lay ahead of them. However, there was an increase in the number of women reporting harassment in the 1999 survey.

In 1998, Initiative 200 was passed in the state of Washington, banning ethnic and gender preferences in hiring; subsequently, the percentage of women recruits declined. Nationally women constituted less than 2.5% of professional firefighters in 2005. In 2000, there were only 11 women fire chiefs in the United States; one of those was the Chief in Tacoma. In two recruit classes in 2007 in Seattle, only one woman was hired. That woman was Annie Olson who grew up in Quinault. In an interview she said she doesn't feel special-she sees herself on equal terms. Hired over about 2,500 other people who applied for the job, Olson said, "I don't really look at it like I was the only girl."

Women had shown from 1975 through 2008 that one factor remained equal between the sexes, and that was motivation. It was no longer a question of whether or not women could do the job. As of 2008, 93 of the 1,038 firefighters in Seattle were women, close to 9% and much higher than the national average. Women were working in all areas of the Fire Department, as paramedics, dispatchers, and fire marshal inspectors, as well as firefighters.

Firefighter rescue demo Item 136259, Fleets and Facilities ImageBank Collection, 0207-01, Seattle Municipal Archives
Molly Douce received a 30-year service award from Mayor Nickels, April 29, 2008 Item 162219, Personnel Department Training and Development Photographs, 6008-01, Seattle Municipal Archives
Fire truck by International Fountain at Seattle Center for Seattle Works Service Award Event Item 145075, Fleets and Facilities ImageBank Collection, 0207-01, Seattle Municipal Archives

This exhibit was created, in part, with funds from the Women's History Consortium.