Krystyna Krakowski became a firefighter in Florida at a time when there were very few women to work beside or guide her in the service. Twenty years later, she is not only thriving but also recruiting more females into the profession.
Krakowski is one of five women at Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue who made department history last year by working an entire shift with no male colleagues — a feat that went viral on social media. She and her team members say they have been able to succeed thanks to both the support of the men they work with and by pushing through every challenge that comes their way.
The chain saw-and-ax-wielding women note they are held to the same standards as the men, physically and otherwise, and that the public should be aware that men and women of the department work together to help people.
“I’ve worked super hard to be strong from Day One,” said firefighter Julie Dudley. “I still remember being in an academy and the instructor looking at me going, ‘If you want to do girly push ups you can,’ and I was like, ‘Excuse me. No, I’m good. I got this.’”
The firefighters’ success is notable in a profession that is so heavily male-dominated and that has seen numerous lawsuits from women alleging discrimination and sexual harassment in fire departments across the country.
The day they worked the all-woman shift, they were encouraged and cheered on by the men of the Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue.
“Even our battalion chiefs sent us a message: ‘Good luck, ladies, all eyes are on you today. Show ‘em what you got,’” Krakowski said. “It was exciting to say that every position was filled by a female. … We played every role. We’re capable. We’ve made it.”
It wasn’t always easy, however. Even some of the women on the history-making team had to overcome prior obstacles. In the fire department where she previously worked, Krakowski says she was the target of a hazing. She said fellow firefighters awoke her with an airhorn, held her down and zip-tied her hands and legs. When the incident came up on a radio show, Krakowski said she felt compelled to call in because comments from the public were so awful.
“It was heart-wrenching to hear another woman say, ‘She doesn’t belong in a firehouse. It must be a girl who needs attention,’” Krakowski said. “I’m a hardworking single mom. I’ve been that way almost my entire life; nothing has ever been given.”
Kelsey Krzywada said at her first fire school, instructors were unwilling to help her when she struggled with the training because of her small size. At the second school she tried, however, “They were encouraging, regardless of your size, your gender,” Krzywada said. “They loved their career, and they wanted all of us to love it too.”
Kryzwada said her choice of professions also negatively affected a relationship.
“His girl works with chain saws and fire, and he feels a little less of a man,” she remarked of a former partner.
When their all-woman shift went viral, most of the feedback on social media was positive, but there were detractors as well.
“We’d have people going, ‘How are you going to carry my 300-pound husband out of a building over your shoulder when it’s on fire?’” Julie Dudley said. “Well, we’re not. And I can tell you that no man in our department is going to do it either.”
The firefighters acknowledge that the physical aspects of the job can be challenging, but they said they have learned how to play to their strengths as women rather than relying on brute force. As smaller women, Krzywada and Krakowski have found alternate but effective ways to do their job, whether it’s pulling a hose line or throwing ladders, they said.
And while there are still plenty of “good old boy” fire departments in the U.S., the women see a positive shift away from that as more young people enter. Sandi Ladewski said any male firefighters at the Palm Beach Gardens department who didn’t approve of women working in the industry have since left. The ones who remain — both colleagues and superiors — have supported the women and helped them to thrive and grow in numbers, she said.
Krakowski said she hopes to start seeing even more women join the ranks as instructors. Monica Marzullo, who was the second female in history to work in her last department, says the presence of more women brings a sense of camaraderie.
“The guys have always had each other. They have that brotherhood,” Marzullo said. “And it’s nice, too, when you have good women that are actually interested in helping one another.”
Since going viral, Dudley and Krakowski said they’ve received messages on social media from women wanting to become firefighters. Both said they welcome and advise them on how to enter the field.
“I have … one little niece (who) wants to be a firefighter,” Ladewski said. “She wants to help people like Auntie Sandi.”