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The Daughter Brigade

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  • The Daughter Brigade

    This story was in the November 19th Sunday Boston Globe; the Globe West section...

    The daughter brigade
    In Marlborough, family tradition sends women into firefighting
    By Megan Woolhouse, Globe Staff | November 19, 2006

    When Laura Styn heads off to a job, she straps on an air tank and grabs a pickax. But ask her to describe herself , and she'll say she's a "Daddy's girl." Following in her father's footsteps, she became a firefighter in 2001, Marlborough's first female.

    "My father asked me a few times: 'Are you sure you want to do this; is this what you want?' " Styn said. "I said, 'Absolutely,' even though I didn't even know any female firefighters."

    That is not surprising. Only 220 of the state's roughly 12,000 firefighters are women, according to the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts union. Of them, three are now on the Marlborough force, working alongside their firefighter dads.

    Tom Leonard, deputy state fire marshal, sees what's happening in Marlborough as a sign that women are finally breaking into one of the last male bastions.

    "Everyone knows the father/son firefighter thing is huge," he said, noting that both his father and son are firefighters. "It's starting to soften up a little."

    Marlborough's daughters have learned what the city's sons have known for years: Firefighter jobs offer great pay, benefits, and opportunities for advancement, said Maureen McFadden , spokeswoman for the Women in Fire Service Inc., a national group that advocates for female firefighters.

    "It's not about gender," McFadden said. "It's about jobs."

    The Marlborough trio didn't set out to make a feminist statement. All took the civil service test to be firefighters in their early 20s after dabbling in other professions. Styn had studied fashion design, worked office jobs , and was living with her parents when she decided to take the civil service test. Christie Clement had considered becoming a social worker; and Janeen Grasso had worked in the same accounting office as her mom.

    They knew joining the department would not be easy. Some firefighters and their wives disapproved of women on the force. The academy would stretch their physical limits. And they faced the daunting prospect of a job where at any moment they might have to put their lives on the line.

    "It was no walk in the park," Grasso said.

    The fathers could say the same thing. They watched and, admittedly, worried. Collectively, the three had more than 80 years of experience fighting fires and knew the job's upside and its risks.

    "I didn't recruit her," Deputy Chief Stan Clement said of his daughter. "But I couldn't stop her either."

    'The coolest job'

    As a girl, Christie Clement always liked going to the fire station with her brothers. But it wasn't until she was 23 that she told her father that she wanted to work there.

    "I always thought it was just the coolest job in the world," she said. "It's a family." After graduating from Framingham State, Clement worked in group homes and considered a career as a teacher or social worker. Firefighting paid more, though, and seemed like a way to give back in the days and months following Sept. 11, she said.

    She waited four years, taking the civil service exam twice, before an opening came up. She took emergency medical technician classes to boost her resume and worked as a waitress to get by.

    Clement graduated from the academy earlier this year and started work at Marlborough's downtown station over the summer.

    She wears her light brown hair pulled back tightly, no makeup , and has painted her short fingernails black. She recently went to her first house fire. Her father went, too.

    "He tries to pretend he doesn't follow me, but he does," she said.

    One of the most senior officers, Stan Clement has been in the department for 34 of his 55 years. He works in administration now, wears a crisp white officer's shirt, and, because of his rank, can drive a department SUV to any call in the city.

    His wife, Stephanie, said he listens to the scanner non stop at home since his daughter joined the ranks. Christie Clement lives in an apartment at her parents' house , and he's always seeking her out to talk about the job, she said.

    "They have a common bond now, and they've become close, almost to the point of annoyance," Stephanie said with a laugh.

    Proud that his daughter is part of the firefighting tradition, the elder Clement said he is also a nervous dad. When his daughter rushes from the interview to respond to a three-car crash, he turns on a fire radio receiver in the station's conference room, even though he's off duty. He stops mid-sentence to listen whenever her voice comes on.

    He'll keep a radio on for the rest of the night, too.

    "I'm just concerned," he said. "It's dark now."

    'It's kind of crazy'

    It's a father's nightmare. Mickey Grasso recalled sitting on Simarano Drive , exhausted from battling an industrial fire at an old bakery in 2005. A captain sent four other firefighters inside as replacements. One was Grasso's daughter.

    The fire intensified , and as burning insulation and plastic filled the air with dense smoke, fire officials called for an evacuation. Dozens of firefighters sounded their airhorns to alert the firefighters inside to get out.

    Grasso and another firefighter crawled on their hands and knees around the door his daughter had entered. He grabbed around in the darkness for anyone he could pull out, he said. He got his daughter by her coat collar.

    "You could have been a veterinarian," he hissed at her under his breath as he pulled her to safety. The two laugh, recalling it today.
    Grasso said her father's job always fascinated her. She recalled driving with her mother past a house fire her father was working and watching a woman jump from an upstairs window. She went to department holiday parties and barbecues. She knew Styn and Clement for years before they became firefighters.

    "When you see it though out your life, it makes you want to be a part of it."

    She knew after high school that she wanted to become an emergency medical technician. By the time she was 22, she knew she wanted to take the firefighter's test. Mickey Grasso was less than thrilled.

    "As a firefighter, the last thing I wanted was for one of my kids to be trapped in a fire," he said. "Now she's running into them like I do. It's kind of crazy."

    Yet both father and daughter have grown confident in her abilities. She learned how to bring a body down a ladder using her lower body strength (balancing a person on her knee). And she passed speed and endurance tests that timed how quickly she could strap on an air tank or run with a hose. Although she worked out regularly, she said the academy left her so sore she had difficulty sleeping.

    She scoffs at those who say they would rather be rescued from a fire by a man than a woman.

    "You're just happy to see anyone," she said.

    Mickey Grasso recalled hoping she was a boy when his wife was pregnant. He had already picked the name Jeffrey.

    Janeen has turned out to be his legacy. Until recently, she moonlighted with her father, helping him operate a hot dog truck called "Mom's Lunch" after his mother.

    'It was a men's club'

    It should hardly be a surprise that Laura Styn became the city's first female firefighter. Her father is a firefighter, as is her cousin and brother-in-law. Her uncle is the chief.

    But that didn't make things easy for her.

    "It was a men's club," she said. "I kind of felt like I was ruining what they had."

    Styn said she took inspiration from a Worcester warehouse fire that killed six city firefighters. She saw the toll the fire took on her father and uncle, who were there, and it made her think seriously about a career in firefighting.

    She took the civil service exam, scoring 99 out of 100 points. She exercised with other firefighters in the department , and they showed her things like how to drag a fire hose . Her father, Al Ercolani , tried to prepare her for life at the station.

    "I said you're going to hear things you don't like about me, because that's what happens when you work with 60 or 70 people," he said. "Somebody doesn't like you. But don't take offense." Styn said she took her dad's advice , and in her five years as a city firefighter, has weathered many firsts. She was the department's first pregnant firefighter and now has two children , ages 1 and 3. With the absence of a department maternity policy, she consulted her doctor and remained on the job until she was four and five months pregnant, then went without pay.

    "People give me a hard time all the time because I have two small children," she said. "Some of my great-aunts have said that's no job for a mother."

    Yet those dilemmas didn't even come close to the ones she faced trying to get through the fire academy, she said.

    "I would cry myself there almost every single day," she said. "Then I'd cry the whole way home."

    There was a solid hour of running, push-ups, and other exercises, sometimes done wearing a heavy air tank. One of two women in a class of 43, Styn said she dreaded the quick-paced morning runs in military formation.

    Her father told her not to let any other firefighters see her cry. He knew there were times when she wanted to quit.

    "I said -- it's your decision. You started it, if you want to back out now, back out," he said. "She never did."

    That toughness will serve her well, Ercolani said. There may be a time when she will have to rescue a burn victim only to watch the person die. Those memories "get stuck in you," he said.

    For now, they haven't had to respond to a big fire together. But if that day comes, Ercolani said, he is not afraid. As a senior member of the department, he might drive the engine and help orchestrate the response. The young, gung-ho firefighters -- like his daughter -- will likely get sent in first.

    When "they say vent the roof, then I'm putting the ladder to the roof , and she's going up," Ercolani said. "That's what I did when I was 28, and that's what she's doing."

    Megan Woolhouse can be reached at [email protected].
    ‎"The education of a firefighter and the continued education of a firefighter is what makes "real" firefighters. Continuous skill development is the core of progressive firefighting. We learn by doing and doing it again and again, both on the training ground and the fireground."
    Lt. Ray McCormack, FDNY

  • #2
    Thanks for the post.


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