Interview with Sarinya Srisakul, President of United Women Firefighters

 Sarinya Srisakul, President of United Women Firefighters

Sarinya Srisakul, President of United Women Firefighters

Interview by Katie Edmonds
Photos: Sarinya & her dog (courtesy of Sarinya Srisakul), photo in gear: Nicholas Truong, photo in gray tee: Sue Schaffner as part of a Visual AIDS project

Women firefighters and officers only make up 0.5% of the FDNY, which is shockingly a historic high. While the number has grown from past years, this is the lowest percentage of women firefighters out of all the major cities in the United States. Sarinya Srisakul, President of the United Women Firefighters (which represents the 57 women firefighters and women fireofficers who work for the FDNY) says, "We have a real opportunity to make great strides in changing the landscape for women firefighters in the FDNY. This job will change your life."

I'm guessing there's a lot more to being a firefighter than extinguishing fires and extracting people from burning buildings, but I don't know what that is. Can you walk me through a typical week in your life?

Sure…I actually balance my time between the firehouse and running the United Women Firefighters. A typical light week in the firehouse is working two separate 24 hour shifts. We have a schedule of doing chores, tool maintenance and checks, drills and going out to do building inspections. We also collectively make lunch and dinner together. In between these scheduled periods, we can get an emergency call any time. I work in a pretty busy area in Manhattan— there are a lot of people and a big night life so there is no shortage of going out the door. Obviously not all our calls are for fires. Even the fire calls for the most part turn out to be false alarms like people smelling their neighbors burning food or people smoking inside setting off alarms. But of course, you never know when it will be a big fire, and we have to be prepared for that. One of the worst fires in my career was a 7-alarm blaze that burned for over 24 hours. In addition to fires, we respond to medical emergencies, utility emergencies like gas and water leaks, stuck elevators, car accidents, people drowning, carbon monoxide alarms, and anything that doesn’t fit neatly in any other category like suspicious packages, hazard materials and increasingly, catastrophic weather related events like hurricanes and flooding. 

A lot of the work in the United Women Firefighters (UWF) is centered around our training program and special events. The training program is for women who want to be FDNY firefighters and we have women in all different points of the process of trying to get into the FDNY. I personally go in to the program twice a month, as do the other women firefighters who are a part of the program. But I also handle the administration tasks that a lot of people don’t see. We also have a bunch of special events throughout the year. We just partnered with LUNA bar and the Vulcan Society to throw a firefighter themed obstacle course 5k and festival called “Are You Brave Enough?". It was thrown the first weekend of filing for the FDNY firefighter exam to give attention to that since it only happens once every 4-5 years. We were signing people up for the exam right on the spot at the event. The last FDNY firefighter exam was in 2012.

We are also having an open house for women who have questions about our program or about being a firefighter coming up on Sunday, April 23rd at our home at the New York Sports Club at 217 Broadway, details at unitedwomenfirefighters.org. More details about taking the firefighter exam that is open now check out: joinfdny.com

What makes you a good firefighter?

Empathy. The main tenet of doing this job to help others and being an integral part of the community that you serve. 

If FDNY achieved gender equity, how would that change how a day on the job looks for you?

For one, I would actually work with women in my firehouse! I’ve been on the job 12 years and have yet to be in a firehouse with more than just myself. It took me about 5 years to work with another woman, once! It was such a big deal that we took about a hundred selfies and couldn’t stop gushing about it! Nowadays, through our efforts, we are seeing a major shift in the numbers of women. Our numbers have more than doubled since I started. The next crop of women who are graduating on the 18th will bring our numbers up to 63 and a couple of them will be put in firehouses with other women. Although it’s not much, it’s definitely a start and maybe one day if we reach 1% of the job, we can have it be more common that women get to work together and support one another. Right now we are at 0.5% of the FDNY. 

If FDNY achieved gender equity, what differences would New Yorkers see in the service we receive when we need you?

Women citizens of NYC need help. If we respond to a medical call, and there’s a passed out woman naked in her bedroom, I’m the one in the crew that gets sent in. And for the person who needs help, there is a sense of relief and comfort in those compromised situations when they see me helping them. We get calls to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms, women’s apartments and even sensitive situations like domestic violence to women and children. Sometimes seeing a face that looks like yours gives a huge relief to someone’s emotional state. This also extends to cultural and linguistic diversity as in NYC we are one of the most diverse places in the world. Since I am Asian and multi-lingual, that has been advantageous for me to communicate or understand different situations that we might encounter at work. 

The main reason Got a Girl Crush is so important to me is that I need to see women talk to each other about their expertise and aspirations. When you talk with with women fire fighters, what kinds of aspirations and goals do you talk about?

Our mentorship of women firefighters starts when they are at the very beginning of their careers. We give them advice and help them navigate through the bureaucracy inherent in the hiring process of becoming a firefighter. Throughout their time with us, we are that voice and example that no matter what others might tell them, that they can be successful in this path as long as they put the time in and believe in themselves. When they actually become firefighters, some women can feel isolated as the only woman in their firehouse but when we get together, we find that we have a lot of common experiences. Personally, I am just as inspired by the young women as they are by us more seasoned women. It makes me proud to see all of their hard work and ambition come to fruition. 

When I was younger I very seriously considered working in emergency service. Ultimately I decided I was more bookish than heroic, but sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like. Do you remember deciding to do this job?

A friend of mine dragged me to a presentation at FDNY headquarters for their recruiting season that year. It was the year after 9/11 and the city was shook for the most part and economically starved. As I sat in the chair and watched the corny presentation and “sizzle reel” (computer presentation with firefighters going to fires)…something came over me and I was stunned and inspired. At the time there were less than 30 women firefighters (out of a force of over 10,500)…maybe about 25? I was shocked but inspired to join. It was like a calling. At the presentation there were a few women firefighters there who I ended up building years long relationships with. A couple of them are my most cherished friends. But at the time they were my mentors. A few months later, I joined the women’s training program and fast forward to the present, and I am running it today! Time flies!

By the way, I am also the first and only Asian woman firefighter in the FDNY. I am psyched for number 2(and more) to come along one day!

How did you decide that the FDNY was the right place to be a firefighter?

I am a New Yorker. 

Aside from becoming a firefighter like you, could you give me a recommendation about how to be more heroic?

The main thing about being “heroic” is about helping others, especially those that face adversity. There is no shortage of being a heroine no matter what your personality is like. Especially in this day in age, there is so much adversity, especially here in the United States under this current administration and there are many ways in which you can be heroic and resist. Heroism can look like: donating to Planned Parenthood or any other agency centered around women’s healthcare and rights, joining a picket line, protesting, signing a petition, helping your elders with their needs, volunteering at an animal shelter, picking up garbage at a nature preserve, working at a pantry or soup kitchen, organizing a fundraiser for a small non profit or charity, helping out your family (chosen family counts too), speaking up for marginalized people…I can go on and on. But heroism happens everyday and in every way. Ask yourself, what can I do to make my community a better place? That is the first step to being heroic.