Sarinya Srisakul doesn’t run away from danger. In fact, she runs straight into it. As a New York firefighter, her job is to save lives day in and day out. Along with fighting fires, she responds to Emergency Medical Services Calls, which includes (but isn’t limited to) domestic violence situations, car accidents, and people drowning. Sarinya, who is New York Fire Department’s first ever Asian-American female firefighter, wasn’t dreaming of this career path since she was a kid. In fact, she was a former art-school student and community social justice activist and organizer. Firefighting never crossed her mind, but that all changed after 9/11. About a year after that historically devastating day, Sarinya’s friend took her to a fire department orientation.
“After 9/11 happened, I felt really helpless,” she shared. “I showed up to that orientation and I actually met women firefighters there. They were really encouraging and I thought to myself, if they can do it, then I can do it too. It really sparked something in me. From there, I put my all into becoming a firefighter. It was instant.”
In 2005, when Sarinya joined the New York Fire Department, she was the only woman in her firehouse. Not only was the day-to-day job rife with trauma and dangerous challenges, Sarinya dealt with naysayers — in the NYFD community and outside of it — who believed that she didn’t have what it takes to put out fiery blazes and save lives.
“I really felt alone and isolated because I never saw women at all during that time,” she said.
Paul Mannix, a former NYFD chief, fought against allowing women to become firefighters. “Women can’t compete,” he argued. He even went as far as leaking the personal information of women and minority firefighter candidates. As a chief he had access to their medical histories, firefighter test scores, contact info, and home addresses. He fed it all of that info to tabloids and media. Yes, that’s a violation of medical history laws. And hell yeah, he was eventually fined and suspended by NYFD.
There were plenty of NY male firefighters like Paul who didn’t think women like Sarinya could hack it. She paid them no mind, though. Like any trailblazer, Sarinya pushed back, persisted, and proved them all wrong. She joined the United Women Firefighters (UWF) and made it her mission to recruit more women to join NYFD. She says her job isn't to convince male firefighters that women are more than capable. Instead, she says, her job is to convince the people who are in power writing the policies.
“At the end of the day, I have to have inner strength to do the advocacy work because I know I'm right and it’s the right thing to do. I know that if I wasn't doing this, I would feel worse than I do when strangers bully me on the internet or when firefighters whisper behind my back,” she says. “At the end of the day, it's just that question we all have to ask ourselves: How do you want to live your truth? Do you live it with your head held high or do you allow other people, including strangers, dictate what you do with your life?”
Now, as president of UWF, Sarinya supports and mentors women by training them for firefighters exam, organizes mental health workshops, and provides a much needed safe space to unload about discrimination or harassment in the hiring process or at work.
Sarinya knew that these breaking barriers wouldn’t “lower the standards” of the fire department. In fact, because of the nature of her work, she understands how important diverse representation is to the communities she’s serving. She feels like there's an extra level of comfort when people in the community - especially women or people of color - sees someone who looks like them helping and understanding where they coming from.
“So many times, I've gone to a medical call, where a woman is compromised or naked and lying on the floor,” she shared. “If it’s in the women's locker room or women's bathroom, I’m the one who gets sent in and the woman says, ‘Thank God you're here.’ If the fire department looked like one type of person, it just doesn't make sense.”
Currently, 72 out of 11,000 firefighters in the department are women (an all-time high for NYFD!) thanks to the advocacy work Sarinya and UWF members have done and continue to do.
“To know that I've had something to do with it is a phenomenal feeling,” Sarinya expressed. "One day, it will be very normal to have women firefighters — as normal as you see a woman cop or a woman judge.”
~*Damn, women are invincible. Have you helped break gender barriers in male dominated fields? Tell us about it!*~