Fighting Fire (1998) by Caroline Paul is a memoir of Paul’s experiences as one of the first women on the San Francisco Fire Department. Back in the late 1980’s, after a number of sexist and racist incidents, the Court required the department to diversify. Caroline Paul was seen at a gym and recruited. Paul had graduated from Stanford. She volunteered at a public radio station in Berkeley, and her twin sister was the Baywatch star: Alexandra Paul. Caroline was definitely not your typical firefighter, but despite all that, something drew her to the job, and she became one of the first women firefighters in the San Francisco Fire Department.
I read this book in two long sittings–months apart. The first half of the book I read when I was winter camping in Colorado and confined to my tent, curled up in my sleeping bag in an effort to stay warm. The second half of the book I finished this spring in Tennessee–camping in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I was once again confined to my tent–this time because of the monsoon-like rain.
I’ve had this book for years, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to read it. Over ten years ago, I became a firefighter myself. I was the only woman in my fire academy, and I was terrified that I’d given up my job only to fail spectacularly with this new challenge. In hindsight, I did well, but at the time I was overwhelmingly anxious about my relative weakness. I never felt good enough, received no encouragement, and was constantly surrounded by men complaining that they would “let anyone in these days” and “women have it so much easier” (even though expectations were the same for men and women).
I originally bought the book thinking it would give my experience some perspective, but for many years it sat on my shelf. I didn’t want to read a book that echoed my experiences because it would just be a painful rehashing of everything I went through. On the other hand, if Paul was some superhero woman firefighter, it would just show me everything I could have done better. Fortunately, time and experience have helped me grow in confidence. I like the job more, and I feel more confident with what I’m doing.
The first woman at my fire department was hired in 1984, and I was hired in 2012. Now, in 2023, the atmosphere is even better than when I was hired (although there are certainly still challenges). I am very impressed with the women that led the way, and I’m so glad that I didn’t have to be one of them. However, Caroline Paul was one of the first women in San Francisco, and she was hired because the fire department was forced to hire women because of a court case. So, it was not a particularly welcoming atmosphere that she found herself in. Paul had a number of stories of coworkers acting very badly around her and toward her, but she handled it well.
Some aspects I found especially interesting were the similarities and differences between our departments. The culture of being aggressive and not giving up your tools felt very familiar. But Paul was a firefighter before I got on, and these days we are better about being on air in fires and trying to avoid exposures that cause cancer.
With my experiences, this book was definitely right up my alley, but I don’t think you need to be a firefighter to understand or enjoy it. Paul is an intelligent writer, and I thought she did a great job describing the highs and lows of my latest career.
CBR15BINGO – “Adulthood” because firefighting is a job for adults and certainly became my final “adulting” career.