he Jerusalem fire department is fanning its own flames and inaugurating women into its ranks for the first time in its history. Although it is not the first fire department in Israel to do so - the cities of Ashdod and Ma'aleh Adumim have females on their staffs - the move is significant because, with over 700,000 residents under its watch, the Jerusalem-area department services the largest population in Israel. Firefighting has long been a male-dominated profession - not only because of the physical demands it entails, but also because of the notions of brotherhood it invokes. Unlike other professions in which males maintain a stronghold, the decision to allow females to join the force was instituted without a fight, initiated by Fire Chief, Moshe Swisa, and fully backed by Mayor Uri Lupolianski. In contrast, Alice Miller successfully sued the Israel Air Force in 1997 for the right to join its pilot course. This paved the way for Lt. Roni Zuckerman to become the first woman fighter pilot in 2001. In this case, however, after seeing firsthand the success of women firefighters in the United States and Europe, Swisa decided to initiate a similar program here. "I saw women firefighters over there and I asked if they were on the same level as the men. If the mentality of the women in the US can be that strong, it will be the same here," he says. There are 130 coveted firefighter positions available in Jerusalem, spread out among six firehouses. Women have not been recruited in the past because of a lack of interest on their part and the physical rigors of the job, explains Ofer Shefer, chief instructor in the largest Jerusalem firehouse in Givat Mordechai. To address the first problem, the municipality ran ads exclusively directed toward women in various newspapers promoting two of its vacant positions. Six women responded in total and after a series of interviews, the fire department chose two candidates. The second issue, however, remains the big white elephant in the room - one that does not appear to have been given careful consideration by the department yet. The two female candidates are currently in the infant stages of their training in which they spend a month rotating through daily shifts, learning how to care for the equipment, and most importantly, determining if they are a good fit with the rest of unit. It is only after this period that the women, like the men, will enter basic training, which involves the real physical challenges. Before then, there are no measured physical tests or standard determinants to ascertain if any candidate - male or female - will be up to the physical task. According to Shefer, however, a candidate's aptitude, be it physical abilities or mental commitment to the job, becomes clear to the instructors through the course of training. "We have thrown out male firefighters during this initial period because they don't get along with people, they are not fast enough or motivated enough," he said. "With our experience, we can tell who is who," he insists. Shefer might be correct in his assertion, but one of the first two female candidates dropped out of the program after only three days. According to Shefer and the other female candidate, the woman's departure was wholly her own decision after she concluded that she wasn't suited to the job. Although immediately replaced by another candidate, her quick departure brings into question how carefully the department has screened the current female candidates to determine if they really will be able to succeed in the long run - a goal in which the department presumably has a vested interest. Shefer dismisses the notion that the current female candidates will fail to complete the program because of the physical demands required of them. "If a woman needs help lifting something, we will help her. It is the ability to be able to be inside intense smoke for over 30 minutes and carry heavy equipment back and forth that matters," he says. That "ability," however, is the very same argument that has prevented women from becoming firefighters in the past and the same reasoning Shefer uses to explain why firefighting is one of the last professions to actively recruit and admit women. While there are women who undoubtedly do possess such abilities, firefighters have always operated on the assumption that most women do not. So far, by all accounts no one questions the superb motivation of the first female candidates, Bosmat Shambiq and Shoshi Michaeli. Yet the women themselves admit that they have done nothing special to prepare for the physical challenges that lie ahead. Former parking attendants, both women say they wanted to become firefighters because of the diversity of the work and the opportunity to save people on a regular basis. Both also have the full support of their families. "It's not just physical work," says Michaeli, who measures in at 160 cm. and 48 kg. "We also deal with a lot of soul-based activity." Michaeli is right in that firefighters spend a significant amount of time responding to non-fire related events such as car accidents, terrorist attacks and yes, even rescuing cats from trees, says Shefer. In fact, such incidents comprise nearly half the 6,000 calls the Jerusalem fire department responds to annually. Would it be acceptable then to employ a firefighter who can respond outstandingly to these events but refrain from the more demanding fire activities? "Absolutely not," says Shefer. "Everyone is required to meet exactly the same qualifications. We are working with rescues and firefighting; this is not a game." Rita Bar-Tal, chair of the Israel Women's Network, lauds the efforts by the fire department to include women. "I see all these attempts in a very positive way. It's not important why they didn't do it before," she says. In addition, Bar-Tal wholeheartedly endorses enforcing the same standards for both men and women. "Equal opportunity means you have to stand up to whatever the requirements are," she says. There are other concerns, however, for which the department has no firm policy in place, such as how to handle a pregnancy. According to Swisa, the department would have no problem giving a pregnant woman nine months of reduced physical activity. He further noted that such a problem did not need an urgent resolution as the current candidates were young and still single. To anticipate potential future issues, the department might do well to look at the issues already being experienced by female firefighters in the US. According to the Web site of Women in Firefighting, the only organization that claims to keep national statistics on female firefighters, more than two-thirds of the estimated 6,000 firewomen in the US have been sexually harassed at some point on the job. The accompanying anecdotal commentary, however, indicates that each woman's experience is very much determined by the willingness of her individual unit and commander to accept her as an equal on the job. There has been mixed reaction among the male firefighters in Jerusalem over the admission of women, but most view it as a positive, if somewhat alien, development. Shmuel Levy, who used to work in the control room but two months ago became a full-time firefighter, believes that with time most of the men will adjust to working alongside women. "To see women do what I do is a little bit weird, but refreshing in a good way," he says. More seasoned firefighter Yossi Bensimhon, who has been on active duty for eight and a half years, gladly welcomed the addition of women into the department. "There was a lot of debate among the men about it, but time will tell, you can never know," he says.

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