Burning Down the Barriers

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Fire Captain Michele Richards sits across from me in an office at the firehouse on the grounds of NASA Ames Research Center, just an hour down the 101 freeway from San Francisco. Of the thirteen men on her crew, one opens the door every so often to use the office where I’m conducting our interview. “Oh, sorry,” they say, which doesn’t faze Richards, who just smiles and says, “No worries,” to her co-workers before turning back to explain what life is like working as the only women at the firehouse day in and out.

“I still have to find my comfort level, my boundary, being a woman, and being one of the guys. It’s not a matter of fitting in, but it’s appreciating those similarities and those differences.”

She goes on to describe a day when she had come back to work after having dressed for a wedding she was attending because she had forgotten something in her locker.

“I had on a dress, make-up, the whole thing. I rang the doorbell. One of my firefighters came to the door and said, ‘May I help you?’ He had no clue of who I was. That’s an issue that I struggle with wanting to be one of the guys, yet retaining my femaleness, there’s a real balance there.”

It hasn’t happened overnight, finding that balance or even the progression of women in the field. Richards’ move to California three years ago for the captain position at NASA Ames’ firehouse was pivotal in order to advance her career, which spans a full twenty-two years in the fire service.

“For me back in 1985, I was one of the first women on my department. Certainly as a female and coming on twenty-some years ago, it was a challenge because you know as a female you have to give one-hundred and twenty percent, especially in a male-dominated field where you’re really being watched. It seemed like every progression from firefighter to engineer apparatus operator that was a promotion, to lieutenant, to captain, I still had to prove myself. Certainly the older individuals on the department when the women first came on, no matter what I did, it wasn’t going to be good enough. I was breaking into that sacred sanctuary of that male-dominated field and they were very unhappy, especially that I could do the job.”

“As I progressed and as these older firefighters retired and as individuals worked with me and saw that I could do the job and liked my management style, but as far as upper-management leadership, there was still that glass ceiling. I had made captain there [in Topeka, Kansas] and had applied numerous times for promotions into battalion chief, assistant chief type positions, and was passed over for individuals that were white males, with twenty-eight years on that had high school educations and that had really done nothing to prepare themselves for the position. I had spent $30,000 for my education, took all these extra classes, and really worked to prepare myself for that promotion and that advancement to be passed up time again. I didn’t want to sit around for another fifteen years waiting my turn to be chief, so I said, ‘You know what? It’s time to go.’”

Captain Richards picked up her life and moved west where she watched a progressive movement burn the edges of what had typically been a male-dominated field.

“I think in the fire service, they’re beginning to understand that your fire service organization needs to mirror your community and that kind of diversity. It’s not just the big six-foot-four, 200 pound guys, the bull in the china kind of thing, going in and kicking the doors. It’s much different now because of fire protection systems and we don’t have a lot of fires. I can get into smaller places, cubbyholes, up in attic spaces, and a lot of the calls are much more EMS-related. We still fight fires and women have to be up to that level to be strong enough, physically fit. For me, it’s always been the challenge of doing things a little bit differently. Women are much stronger in their legs, so how I lift things and I’m shorter, so how I may get a tool off may be very different from my male counterpart, but I get the job done. I think the big thing is that I know if somebody goes down inside, I know what to do to be able to drag them out. Whether I have to grab and pull instead of lifting them over my shoulder, I’m going to get that male counterpart out because I’ve trained and I’ve exercised and I have the physical capacity to do that. We go in and we fight fires and we have black snot coming out of our nose, you have to have that ability to do that.”

Richards shared about an incident that only a woman might understand. When she and her crew answered a call about a SIDS baby that died, she got on the scene and realized there was nothing they could do. Richards believes that in being a woman, she was able to add solace to a mother’s devastation.

“I was holding the baby in one arm, and I was holding the two and half year old sibling in the other and in between the two I was holding the mom. We were all standing there crying, and I looked around and my male crew was gone, they were nowhere to be seen. That was the best you could do. You could be there with that person in that time and you could grieve with them. That’s a gift that she [the mother] will always remember, that somebody was there with her.”

However, society doesn’t always recognize the multi-tasking talents of women and their ability to bring a little bit of heart to the job. Richards says they’re still surprised when she busts out of a burning building.

“I think it’s no matter how hard we try, especially in any male-dominated field, it’s going to be a challenge of how we’re perceived. Still to this day, and actually, right before I left Topeka Fire Department in Kansas, we had a house fire. When I’m in full uniform with my bunker pants and my helmet and my face mask and everything, you can’t tell if I’m a man or a woman. So it was a small kitchen fire, I had come out. It was hot, I had come out on the porch, walked down to the sidewalk, and I started taking my gear off. When I got my helmet, my mask, and everything off, there was a crowd there and one of the women said, ‘Look, it’s a woman!’ Like, ‘It’s a woman … I’ve never seen one!’ And I had been on eighteen years. So still there’s that perception even within the community.”

I wondered if the same were true back at the firehouse, within her all-male crew back in Kansas or here at NASA. How did she relate to the men that were her crew that she had to manage on the off days during training or on the scene of a fire or emergency? Richards explained that as a gay woman, she didn’t find any friction between her and her male counterparts, but she did speak about the sexual tension that could occur between the sexes.

“It isn’t as prevalent with lesbian women working in a traditionally male field because the chemistry isn’t there. There is the realization that ‘the hunt and conquer’ instinct isn’t relevant for men in this type of situation. Lesbian’s aren’t interested in flirting, but are interested in comradery and building friendships.” 

Richards noted a scenario that one might think would have transpired in California, but actually taught her more about her male colleagues back in Kansas. One of her female crew had been injured on the scene and was in the hospital, but this woman was also in the stages of a sex-change operation.

“The firefighters were able to put aside the issue of her transformation and see this individual as a firefighter, not male or female, but as a peer. I was really surprised and touched by a bunch of basically farm boy rednecks who were at the hospital day and night until they found out he/she was going to be okay.”

Richards was still excited about her job after a decade, which is more than most professionals could say, and most of it was from having just returned from the Women in the Fire Service Conference. The conference, held every two years to commune with other women firefighters around the world, gave her a lot to be excited about for the future of women in the service.

“One of the things we do at the opening ceremony [of the conference] is we say, ‘All the women that have ten years or more stand up. All the women with twenty years continue standing. All the women with thirty years …’ And there was somebody there who had thirty-five years in the fire service. I was in the number of women who had twenty years in, which is just phenomenal compared to what it was years ago.”

I watched as Richards smiled about her life stories in the fire service, her commitment to the job, no matter what, while she put on her bunkers for our photo shoot. Then I asked this woman who doesn’t seem to stop, what’s next?

“I’ve always done long-term planning and goal-setting, ‘Where do I see myself in five years? Where do I see myself in ten years?’ I need challenge, I need stimulation to keep growing. So now I freelance with corporations doing emergency training and continue to interview and look for that right match for a chief’s position.”


Photo of Captain Michele Richards at the NASA/Ames Firehouse, by Amanda Coggin



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