Women, fire, police chiefs make history
Phoenix Fire and Police broke barriers to hiring women in male-dominated industry.
Women have made great strides in many male-dominated professions. But two fields that are still male-led bastions are the police and fire departments.
A rare exception is the Phoenix, the only major city in the US, where women serve at the helm of both departments.
The Phoenix Police Chief Jerry Williams was hired in 2016 and Phoenix Fire Chief Kara Kalkbrenner was hired in 2013.
The women who rule Phoenix say that their gender had nothing to do with the reason why they were chosen to lead.
“We always say that we were picked up by our supervisor, and I just happened to be the wife,” Chief Williams said.
“We always say that we were picked up by our supervisor, and I just happened to be a woman”
Phoenix Police Chief Jerry Williams
But they are not the only public safety departments with the leaders. In Phoenix, women also lead the city’s homeland security, emergency management departments, and the prosecutor’s office.
“A big city finally, a female police-this is huge,” Assistant Chief Sandra Renteria said. “It took a while to get there.” (L-R) Assistant Chief Mary Roberts, Chief Jerry Williams, Assistant Chief Renteria
Phoenix Fire Chief Kara Kalkbrenner has 75 women at the fire department, including Captain Riddle-Bigler, who is in line for a battalion chief
(Phoenix Fire Department)
The city is breaking the national trend of men dominate the leadership roles. Women in Phoenix say that what makes the city so unique is that they have broken down the stereotypes that have hindered women in the past, and the mentality in the city is that women can do anything a man can.
“When I came on in the ’80s, there were a number of unique challenges,” the Phoenix Police Assistant Chief Mary Roberts said. “It was a very small amount of the women in the department at that time and they are fast and small business: ‘you’re going for a stereotypical girl on the police department? Are you planning to cry? Are you planning to be afraid? Are you physically fit enough to cope with (a) the situation that we are often in?'”
But she said: “women in the city, quickly proved they could rise to the challenge.
“They are fast and small business. ‘You’re going for a stereotypical girl on the police department? Are you planning to cry? Are you planning to be afraid? Are you physically fit enough… So those problems are there. But…you rise to those challenges.”
Phoenix Police Assistant Chief Mary Roberts
The prejudices remain, but are now a rare sentiment rather than the norm.
“I think that nowadays, it’s just more and more of nature—than you will not see as many barriers, it is not really a topic of discussion,” Phoenix Fire Capt. Reda Riddle-Bigler said. “I don’t really believe that it is something that we talk about the fire department. If a woman is on the job and those who I coach, what do we talk about carrying your own weight, do what is asked of you and be able to do the work, just as any other man could do.”
While the number of male police officers in the country far exceed female police, the city, the two leaders are seeking to reverse the trend locally. And their leadership is making an impact.
In 2016, almost 88 percent of the full-time police officers were men. In 2013, 88 percent of the full-time the police were the men, according to the FBI. In the fire, the annual national average of female firefighters was 4.6 percent, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
In the Phoenix fire department, there are 75 women, including Riddle-Bigler, who is in line for a battalion chief and assists in the recruitment of women firefighters and mentors girls in the camps as early as the age of 12 years.
“When you ride on the big red and you’re going on calls, that a woman on the call you suddenly get a whole different element,” Captain Riddle-Bigler said.
(Phoenix Fire Department)
Riddle-Bigler said Kalkbrenner and Williams are breaking the glass ceiling in ways that no one thought was possible – and in professions that are traditionally dominated by men.
“Their strength and power to run these big departments in a respected position, certainly paves the way for us,” Riddle-Bigler said. “Do you know that there is hope. That you, too, can do it. And really, just how to be a leader. So good they can’t ignore.”
Plus, some say, it pays to have more women in the police.
A study conducted by the National Center for Women and policing found that female officers are less likely to use excessive force, will improve law enforcement’s response to violence against women, the implementation of community-oriented policing, and that with an increase of the presence of female officers reduces problems of sex discrimination and sexual harassment within a police station.
“Do we make a difference?” Williams asked. “Yes. We make the difference because we look different than other people – but I never want to diminish the value of the time we have put into our craft. The continuous training, the continuous study. I think that the relationship with the community is that it is sometimes easier to approach me because I look like your mother or someone in the community. So, I think that the accessibility factor is different and, I think, an added benefit.”
Riddle-Bigler said that it also helps with female victims.
“I think it just opens up and…let the younger women to see that women in leadership positions that this is something that they can do this if it is something they love to do.”
Phoenix Police Assistant Chief Sandra Renteria
“When you ride on the big red and you’re going on calls, that a woman on the call you suddenly get a whole different element,” Riddle-Bigler said. “You can handle calls that may the call of domestic violence, rape, something that is very personal, but with a different woman next to her can help her coach by something. So, I think that we have something unique in that respect.”
Phoenix seems not intended to be a national model for the woman’s parity. But Williams said the shows naysayers that women can, and must, under the supervision of the police and the fire brigade to be effective.
“It can be done,” Chief Williams said. “Regardless of what that is, don’t let obstacles stay in the way. Just keep moving forward until you find what you’re passionate about. Had I stopped every time someone said that I could not do anything, heck, I wouldn’t have been a police officer, let alone a chief of police, two times. So, it can be done.”
Charlie Lapastora is a multimedia reporter based in Phoenix, Ariz.