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Two decades of firehouse firsts

Women have made steady strides in the St. Petersburg Fire Department. But few hold leadership roles.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 31, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Dora Pearl remembers the day in 1983 she told her boss at the St. Petersburg Fire Department that she was pregnant. His reply: "Firefighters don't get pregnant."

Diane Berkheimer recalls her very first shift in 1982. Her boss told her if she accidentally walked in on a male firefighter in the bathroom, she'd be fired.

Twenty years after the first five women entered the male-dominated world of firefighting in St. Petersburg, they are no longer novelties and have earned the respect of many of their male counterparts. They have made inroads, from uniforms cut for women to light duty for pregnant officers.

But women firefighters occupy just two officer positions in the whole St. Petersburg department. They still share bathrooms with their male counterparts. And they still struggle to have families and keep their jobs.

"A lot of women can't stay in this job because child care is very difficult," said Berkheimer, 42, who struggled 20 years ago as a divorced mother of two young children.

The department's first five women celebrated 20 years with the department at the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters headquarters on First Avenue N with bacon and pancakes, brownies and kiwi strawberry poundcake.

They are a legion of firsts. Cat Washington, 54, was the first black woman in the department. Kelley Palenius, 43, was the first officer and is now a captain, the highest ranking woman. Pearl, 45, who retired two years ago because of an on-the-job injury to her knee, was the first to get pregnant. Berkheimer was the first paramedic. And Pam Ellis? Well, she was simply the very first.

Ellis, 53, said she has learned to use the naysayers to her advantage.

"Those who have supported us have done so tremendously," said Ellis, who joined the Fire Department in January 1982 at a time when her husband worked as a firefighter there. "Those who weren't necessarily supportive, they're the people who challenge you to do your best because they're watching you. So those people are an asset."

Changes are evident as a result of the women. Now, instead of a dormitory with six beds on one side of the room and six on the other, each firefighter has a cubicle with a bed and an open doorway. And when the department renovates or builds a new station, they provide separate bathroom facilities for men and women. But most of the 13 stations don't have the newer facilities.

Palenius was once shown blueprints for a new station on Roosevelt Boulevard. The plans called for a small bathroom for women and a larger one with showers for men.

"I said, this won't do," she recalled. "This building is supposed to last the next 50 years. They told me it cost them another $25,000 just to redraw the blueprints for me."

St. Petersburg's force has more women on average than most departments across the nation. The force's 19 female firefighters make up 6 percent of the 308-member force. That compares to a nationwide average of 2.5 percent, which includes many small departments with no women at all.

"(The women) have had a calming effect; I'm not sure if that's the right word to use," said fire Lt. Chris Bengivengo. "They add color to it that wasn't there before. If you talk to most firefighters, they enjoy the fact that women have assimilated into the fire service. It adds balance."

Fire officials acknowledge that more women could be in authority, but they point out it takes awhile to become an officer and many women are just now eligible to take the test to become one.

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