Freelance submission published on AOL/Hoboken.Patch.com
[Hoboken, NJ]: When Hoboken Fire Engine 2 whizzes down Washington Street, it draws more than the usual stares.
“Grown men, they always do a double-take,” says firefighter Keeon Walker.
What are they staring at? The woman with a wide smile, wearing the same uniform and equipment as the men, sometimes even behind the steering wheel. It’s firefighter Maria “Peggy” Diaz.
“Single guys love it! Actually, all guys love it,” adds Walker, one of the eight men in Diaz’s company, “but it’s definitely shocking for some people.”
The modest Diaz says they’re only staring because they see a woman driving. “I think they’re just making sure I’m not going to hit them with the truck,” she jokes.
Or maybe it’s because a female firefighter is not an everyday site, especially in Hoboken. The Hoboken Fire Department has 123 fire fighters. Only two of them are women. Comparatively, there are 34 Hispanic (including Diaz) and two black members in the department.
When Diaz, 36, and fellow female firefighter Audra Carter, 38, were sworn in on December 19, 2002, they were the first women in Hudson County to join a fire department. A recent study, “Fire in New Jersey 2008,” found that while there are now 12 women fighting fires in the county, Hudson County still ranks lowest in the state. The first paid female firefighter in the nation was sworn in more than a quarter century ago, when Sandra Forcier joined the Winston-Salem, North Carolina department in 1973.
“I didn’t realize how much of a big deal it was until we were in the court house being sworn in and everybody was taking pictures,” Diaz says with a laugh. “I really didn’t realize the impact until we were a few months in.”
Seven years later, Diaz and Carter are proving that women are capable of pulling their weight in what Diaz describes as “a very macho environment.”
Diaz, who is 5-foot-4, weighs less than half that of some of her male counterparts, but that has never held her back. “She’s just one of the guys,” says Hoboken fireman Baron Ballester.
The women knew many of the Hoboken firefighters before joining the department, because both were born and raised in Hoboken.
“They were skeptical. Could we keep up? I mean, here’s this girl, I weigh half what some of them weigh,” Diaz recalls, “They made us earn their respect,” just as any young recruit, male or female, must earn the respect of his superiors.
The first large fire Diaz remembers was on 6th and Washington Streets. She says she was “hauling ass up the stairs. I was not going to be the last one up!”
It didn’t matter that Diaz and Carter had already proved their abilities through the rigorous application process as well as in another traditionally male arena: Diaz is a veteran of the U.S. Navy. She enlisted in 1992, right after graduating from Hoboken High School.
It was during boot camp, in Florida, that she was first introduced to firefighting.
“I fell in love with it,” she recalls. After two years stationed in Washington, Diaz returned to her hometown. She gave birth to her son, Isaiah Mays, in 1995, and worked as an administrative assistant in several New York City offices before applying in 1998.
The hiring process took nearly four years. First, there was the written test, then a grueling physical test that required applicants to carry more than 40 pounds of equipment, while wearing about 60 pounds of gear, up 12 flights of stairs. The process also involved a physical and a psychological exam, as well as an extensive background check.
Diaz and Carter were not given any special treatment or consideration throughout the vetting process.
“They had to beat out the guys, absolutely,” says Hoboken Fire Chief Richard Blohm.
Even after passing all of the exams, Diaz was “shocked” to be hired. “I knew the job was achievable, but with Hudson County’s history of no women, I wasn’t sure that it was going to happen,” she explains, “so when it did, [shock] was the feeling. But when that subsided I was excited, relieved, worried, and trying to get ready for all that was coming.”
Diaz’s mother, Santa Figueroa, was not initially excited about her plans to join the department. “She was okay with the Navy, but this? She told me I was crazy,” Diaz says.
Her son was seven when his mom was hired.
“Since I was so little, I didn’t think it was unusual. But it was exciting,” Mays says. “They were interviewing her on TV and stuff, it was really cool.” Mays, 15, is a freshman at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City.
And what did the guys in the department think?
“It was strange, but I didn’t have any reservations about it. I knew Audra (Carter), I knew she was a go-getter just like us, a hard worker,” firefighter Robert Chaneski says. “There were some questions about strength.” Chaneski was sworn in the same day as Carter and Diaz.
Ballester was already in the department when the women were hired. He met Diaz when they were students at Joseph F. Brandt Middle School. He insists that adding women to the department was a welcome change.
“It’s great having a woman around, she loves to clean!” he teases, “but she can’t cook at all.” The crew usually orders take-out.
Chief Blohm, who was a Deputy Chief at the time the women were hired, called several departments that already had women among the ranks. He wanted to be prepared for any potential issues. The male firefighters had sensitivity training sessions, and the department installed locks on the bathroom doors.
“I held my breath as the girls were integrated,” Chief Blohm recalls, “I would’ve thought there would be some issues, but I’m very proud to say it was seamless.”
The women use the same facilities as the men. Although they sleep in the same room, the beds are separated by lockers.
Ballester says the biggest concern was language. “We weren’t sure what we could say [in front of them],” he says. “But then as soon as we heard Peggy talk, we were like ‘we can say anything.’”
Diaz shrugs, “What can I say, I’m a sailor!”
Nationwide, female firefighters have not all experienced the same seamless integration. “I keep up with the status of women around the country in different fire departments, what the reactions are, and how the public in general perceives us in this field. What I have realized is that it’s a very difficult career for women to enmesh into and prove themselves in.”
Diaz says her years in the Navy helped her prepare. “When I stopped to think about it down the road, I realized how very few of us there are in this field,” she says, “and sometimes how difficult it’s been for some to survive in.”
Diaz and Carter have leaned on each other for support throughout their seven years in the department. Diaz says she considers herself lucky to be in the Mile Square.
“I am grateful,” she adds, “as I’m sure Audra is also, that the transition and acceptance has been great. But it wasn’t easy for some of the men, especially the older ones.” While working alongside a female has become the way of life in the Hoboken department, Diaz still has moments when she feels the weight of what she is doing.
The only time she says she feels out of place is when she takes training classes with other fire departments, and she’s the only girl in a group of 20 or 30 men. “It’s like walking into the firehouse for the first time all over again,” Diaz says.
Since being hired, Diaz hasn’t slowed down. She is now trained in hazardous materials response and heavy rescue. Each year, she joins the NJ Women’s Firefighting Association for various training exercises.
“For Peggy, this is not a paycheck,” Chief Blohm says, “She has stepped up to the plate consistently in her efforts to expand her abilities.”
If it was just about the paycheck, Diaz may never have applied. She waitresses for a Jersey City catering company on days off from the fire department. Working two jobs doesn’t leave much free time. And when Diaz finds time to date, she is not always quick to reveal her career choice.
“I usually wait until the second date before telling them about my job,” she says.
From the way her eyes light up when she describes her job, one can assume she has no regrets. She loves just about every second of it, even the constant teasing from the guys. But she does recognize the price that comes with her profession.
“I love this job and I love what I do, but it is a really sad site to see people lose everything.” Diaz says. “I wish fires didn’t happen. But they do, so at least we can try to lessen the blow.”
When asked if she sees herself as a role model, she is—as always—modest. She hopes she is changing the opinion of women in a male-dominated field, but doesn’t dwell on it. “I don’t tend to think about the impact we have made around here but I do see it and feel it when I have conversations with people, she says. “It makes me feel proud.”
If Diaz can give aspiring female firefighters one word of advice, it would be to be 100 percent sure it’s what they want. Be willing to go the extra mile to achieve your goal, Diaz says.
“It’s not a job that you can be complacent with, you have to keep working and making goals for yourself,” she says. “You have to be strong mentally, physically.”