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Few in number, women firefighters making gains

When Holly Boggs applied to become a Tampa firefighter in 1978, she passed almost every part of the grueling physical test. The 12-minute mile. The timed sit-ups. The walk on the balance beam.

She couldn't complete the five pull-ups, barely missing the bar on the last one. Determined to be a firefighter, Boggs practiced every day for two months and made all five the second time around.

The reward for her hard work: She became one of the first women firefighters in Tampa. Over the next 18 years, Boggs fought fires, worked as a paramedic and was promoted to lieutenant before she was named quality management officer last week. She is now the highest-ranking woman in department history.

In all that time, however, one thing hasn't changed much: Boggs is still a distinct minority in a business dominated by men.

Of 571 uniformed positions at the Tampa Fire Department, 24 are held by women.

"It takes a different kind of person to do this job," said Boggs, 45, who grew up in Belmont Heights. "You have to have personal strength and you have to be tough."

Married with two grown children, Boggs seems an unlikely candidate for a firefighting veteran. She stands 5-foot-2 and weighs 135 pounds.

In her first days as a firefighter, Boggs waited to be called to fight her first fire. It took three days.

"Automatic fire alarms were going off in high rises downtown," Boggs recalled. "They came in as building fires and I got all excited and then got down there and it was nothing."

Finally on the third day, the station alarm rang and she donned bunker gear for the first of many real fires. It was a warehouse blaze, burning strong.

"I hyperventilated when I saw that," Boggs said. "Having never been to one before I went, "Oh my God.' "

As a pioneer of sorts, Boggs faced many obstacles. She had to work for respect as the only woman in her fire station.

Some of the men tiptoed around her joking that they had to watch their language and clean up their act, while others seemed to go out of their way to shock her.

"I remember going into one station and they made this comment about how the captain had to work so hard to change," she said. "I didn't want to make people feel uncomfortable in their work environment and I didn't want them to change for me."

As time went on, Boggs' co-workers grew to respect her and treat her like one of the family. Because firefighters work 24-hour shifts, they eat and sleep at the station and forge very close bonds with one another.

Bogg's female colleagues in the department agree that the atmosphere is different from other law enforcement agencies because there are so few women.

"Respect comes with time," said Julia Sackett, 32, a nine-year veteran. "It's a lot of men, so if you start getting picky or offended, you probably shouldn't do it."

After several years of firefighting, Boggs began to ride the rescue car and eventually trained to become a paramedic. In 1985, she was promoted to lieutenant in charge of the rescue car at her station.

While all uniformed women at the Tampa Fire Department are trained firefighters, most work in rescue and prevention jobs because fighting fires is so physically demanding, said Lydia Storck, personnel research supervisor for the city of Tampa.

"It's pretty strenuous," said Storck, who administers the physical agility tests for all police and fire positions. "There are still a lot of people that look at firefighting as tough work."

Today, the physical test to become a firefighter has changed considerably from when Boggs took it 18 years ago. Candidates perform timed activities wearing bunker gear. They must carry hoses, climb ladders, crawl through dark mazes and run up and down stairs carrying heavy equipment.

Firefighting "is the most harrowing, physically demanding experience you could ever have in your life," Boggs said. "Some women quit, some get hurt and some move on to other jobs."

Sackett, who has never wanted to do anything but fight fires, said the job scares a lot of women. But she doesn't think the sexes should work under different standards.

"I don't think they should make loopholes for women because a lot of people depend on you," Sackett said. "But there are a lot of people who don't want to fight fires, not just women."

Another reason there aren't more women at the Tampa Fire Department is budget constraints. The city hasn't hired any firefighters since 1995. Storck said there is a waiting list of about 300 people.

"I want to hire the best people I can, men or women," Tampa fire Chief Pete Botto said. "If they are good, I want them."

Women have been slow to advance because many have family obligations and don't have time to take classes and study for tests required for promotions, Sackett said. Some just want to remain in their current jobs.

"Just recently in the last few years, women have taken more of an interest in getting promoted," Sackett said. "I haven't because I enjoy what I'm doing."