Take nothing for granted, says 9/11 female US firefighter

Photo: WAM

Fighting a deadly fire while grieving the death of scores of colleagues during the 9/11 terrorist attack and a seemingly false alarm that caused someone’s death in another incident equally haunt Captain Brenda Berkman, New York's first female firefighter.

The latter, is an unforgettable incident that occurred soon after Captain Brekman joined the service in 1982, which she said taught her a "big lesson" in her 25-year long career.

"It was in the middle of the day; normally we had more fires at night," she said. The call came from an area that made numerous false fire alarms in the past, and "therefore, we did not expect anything," she told Emirates News Agency, WAM.

"It turned out that it was a big fire and somebody died."

However, according to Brekman, the firefighters were not prepared to respond to the incident. "Even more experienced firefighters did not have their gear on [when they realised it was a genuine alert]," Berkman, 68, said during the interview on the sidelines of the Global Women’s Forum in Dubai, where she was a speaker.

"What I learned is that you can take nothing for granted when you are a firefighter. You have to always be ready for anything," said the pioneering firefighter who entered the then male-dominated service after successfully winning a legal battle against the New York City Fire Department, which allowed women to take the test to become firefighters in 1982.

Reflecting on the public's interest in female firefighters in those days, she said journalists used to chase fire trucks carrying women fire crew.

"That did not necessarily make women comfortable to be under the microscope like that [while working]," Berkman said, adding she still understood why there was a media interest in something new [female firefighters in action].

September 11 was the most dangerous incident in her career. "I felt I was going to lose my life. Conditions were out of control. It was luck [that decided] who lost their life or who did not," she recounted.

She worked with about 250 of the 343 firefighters who died on the site. "Many of them were close friends. We were grieving the loss of those colleagues while fighting the fire," Berkman said.

"It was very difficult time. We lost much of our senior leadership. We had to really rebuild the fire department," said the gender equality advocate who retired from service in 2006.

She expressed hope that the messages on women’s empowerment from the Global Women’s Forum in Dubai would have a ripple effect not only in the Middle East but across the globe.

"The conference brings women together and gives a message that we are not separated by countries, borders or regions... and that all women are working together," Berkman said.

Berkman founded and was first president of the United Women Firefighters in the US. She was appointed a White House Fellow by President Bill Clinton. Her struggle is the subject of the PBS documentary named ‘Taking the Heat: The First Women Firefighters in New York City.’

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