"One of the biggest problems when you're working with women: Guys try to make them into men."
A sobering drill
Outside of Fire Station 27 in Hollywood stands a statue commemorating the sacrifices of Los Angeles firefighters. There, Melissa Kelley, immortalized in bronze and holding a fire hose, stands among four male firefighters.
But the petite, ponytailed blond may never "man" a fire line again.
Two years ago, on a routine training drill known as the "Humiliator," Kelley was assigned to hoist a 180-pound ladder, climb it while clutching a giant rotating saw and then cut through a window's metal bars. She was exhausted -- having just returned from a fire run -- but confident. She had done a similar drill the day before.
But when she tried to swing the ladder around, she dropped it, "180 pounds, on top of my head," she recalled. She tried to lift it, but her helmet was wedged between its rungs. Her shoulder was throbbing, and she could not lift her arm.
"In my head I'm thinking, 'I'm dying. My arm is messed up. My back is hurting. My legs are going to give out if I don't get this ladder off me.'
"From the moment I realized I was stuck I thought, 'OK, I'm part of a team. They're going to help me, right?' " But when one firefighter moved toward her to help, the station captain ordered him back.
"Everybody was just standing there screaming and cussing at me," Kelley recalled. "No one came to my aid. At all."
She managed to throw the ladder off and finish the drill, she said, her injured arm pinned to her chest.
Later, a female officer took her to the hospital. She had torn a rotator cuff, damaged four discs in her back and three in her neck. She would need surgery and months of rehabilitation. Kelley, now working as a dispatcher, may never return to fighting fires.
At the time, Chief Bamattre blasted the captain's conduct and suspended him for two days without pay. But the captain appealed, and a Board of Rights panel of department officers reduced his penalty to a written reprimand.
"That's less than you get for losing a radio," Kelley said bitterly. But that's not what hurts her the most. It's the humiliation she felt standing there, struggling and failing, obviously in pain, surrounded by men she considered brothers, with no one offering her a hand.
"We help bums, we help blacks, whites, old people, strangers. It doesn't matter what their social status is," she said, her eyes watering at the memory.
"Those were my teammates They would help a dog pinned under a ladder. But they wouldn't help me."
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Women in the 3,625- member Fire Department
The percentage of female firefighters who said they were aware of or had experienced sexual harassment
Source: Los Angeles Times