Dismissed as ‘quota hires’ but now called ‘boss’: Philly’s Black women firefighters tell their stories

To earn department respect as a woman, they work twice as hard.

Philadelphia Fire Department officers and firefighters

Philadelphia Fire Department officers and firefighters

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When Battalion Chief Lisa Forrest and Captain Tarra Mungen were in the Philadelphia Fire Academy in 2003, they were two of 10 women cadets. Of those, six were Black women like them. It was a record year.

In contrast, when Lieutenant Monica Woodhouse, also a Black woman, was in the academy in 1996, she was the only female cadet in a class with 80 men.

“It was hard,” Woodhouse told Billy Penn. “I wanted to quit every day.”

Today, fewer than 4% out of the 2,650 or so uniformed PFD members are Black women, according to the department. And it’s unclear how many are actually firefighters, since these figures encompass city paramedics and EMTs.

Including men, the Fire Department is about a quarter Black, a milestone achieved thanks to the work of Club Valiants. In 1975, the 60-year-old society sued, charging the department with “a pattern of discrimination.” A consent decree was reached, and the city agreed to “promote more Black firemen to the upper ranks, and to increase recruitment and hiring of minorities.”

During the period of the decree, Philadelphia got its first black fire commissioner, and today about a quarter of PFD members are Black. But women still make up a small proportion.

Firefighters like Mungen, 45, and Forrest, 40, give credit to Woodhouse and others before them.

“They had it much harder,” said Mungen. “We stand on their shoulders,” Forrest added. Some detractors dismissed them as “quota hires,” but “we didn’t take a different test,” Forrest noted, adding that sometimes, “people think you’re there because of someone you know and not because you’re qualified.”

Given the potential dangers of the profession, the story also includes tragic firsts. Joyce Craig, who graduated the academy with Mungen and Forrest, was the department’s first woman to perish while fighting a fire in 2014. Club Valiants paid for a headstone for her grave.

Forrest is the first woman president of the club, and she noted recruitment efforts are ongoing. “It’s not about being the first,” Forrest said. “It’s about making sure you’re not the last.”

Below are the stories of five Black women firefighters in Philadelphia.

Battalion Chief Lisa Forrest

Battalion Chief Lisa Forrest

Battalion Chief Lisa Forrest

Rian Watkins for Billy Penn

In September 2020, Forrest became the first Black woman battalion chief in the department’s 150-year history.

Though she originally had plans to pursue a medical career, she’s now the PFD’s highest-ranking Black female firefighter. As battalion chief, Forrest oversees six stations, with over 40 firefighters reporting to her.

Forrest went for the rank of lieutenant at the first opportunity. In 2008, that promotion took her to what Forrest referred to as one of the busiest stations in the country, Engine 50 in North Philadelphia.

“They’d never had a female firefighter there, and I’m coming in as the boss.” she said. But Forrest, a self-proclaimed daredevil, accepted the challenge. “I knew if I didn’t go, there probably would never be another woman assigned there.”

Chronicling the history of women firefighters is a passion for Forrest. At her request, Lieutenant Diane Mercer, who is also Black, was appointed to the Historical Corporation, the board that oversees the Fireman’s Hall Museum.

“I am consistently giving our information to the PFD because a lot of [it] was not documented,” Forrest said. Having Mercer on the board, “ensures we are not written out of history,” Forrest said.

Retired Lt. Diane Mercer

Lieutenant Diane Mercer

Lieutenant Diane Mercer

Rian Watkins for Billy Penn

Mercer, 68, said “the profession chose me.”  She originally sought a position with the United States Postal Service. But since the Fire Department was at the time more intentional in recruiting people of color, a relative encouraged her to apply.

“Like most people, I thought, I’m not going into a burning building and dying in a fire!” Mercer said. But she applied, and in 1985, became one of the first three women and second African American woman in department history.

“At that time, there were so few women, even in other cities,” she said. “As a Black woman in a predominantly male organization, you’re going to run into stuff.”

While  stationed at Engine 41 in West Philadelphia, Mercer became pregnant. She recalled that it was the first time the department had to consider making accommodations for that. “They really didn’t know what to do with me.”

She was then assigned to the fire prevention division — and loved it. “It was there that I found my niche,” Mercer said, adding that the five-day work shift fit her schedule as a new mother.

In 2003, she was promoted to lieutenant, becoming one of the department’s first two Black women in that position. Before she retired in 2018, after 33 years, she was the PFD’s longest serving woman.

Lt. Monica Woodhouse

Lieutenant Monica Woodhouse

Lieutenant Monica Woodhouse

Rian Watkins for Billy Penn

Woodhouse recalls walking past a PFD recruitment table set up at Community College. The recruiter called her over and encouraged her to apply. “I told them, no, that’s not for me,” she said.

But the recruiter was persistent and Woodhouse did apply. After achieving a high score on the civil service examination, she entered the academy.

When she reported to Engine 20 in Chinatown, she was the platoon’s first woman and the only Black person. “They were apprehensive at first, but once they saw I  was capable, they became almost protective.”

In 2006, she was promoted to lieutenant and is now on the Aircraft Fire and Rescue (ARFF) unit. After 26 years of service, Woodhouse, 50, is now the department’s longest serving Black woman PFD officer.

Firefighter Michele White

Firefighter Michele White

Firefighter Michele White

Rian Watkins for Billy Penn

Michele White, 51, also has 26 years of active duty, and is Philly’s longest serving Black woman firefighter.

Like Woodhouse, she initially resisted the department’s recruitment efforts. She remembers being in The Gallery (now known as the Fashion District) when she was approached by a female recruiter. That woman would later become her mentor.

She began her firefighting career in 1996, at Engine 73 in her West Oak Lane neighborhood. White said those early days were difficult. “My station was great, White said, “but there were [some men] who still looked at me as ‘just a woman.’ ”

Although she had  a military background, White said it gave her no advantage. Even when she did prove herself, White said accolades were hard to come by. She told of once beating her male colleagues during a fire training drill. Usually the winner would get bragging rights and praise, according to White, “but when I beat their time, no one said anything.”

White said she had to make a choice. “I was a single mom of three boys, and it is not easy to raise boys in the city,” she said, adding that one son has special needs. So she shifted to fire prevention — and found a new calling.

“It gave me a platform to teach safety to my community,” White said. “It was about more than just having a 9 to 5… This let me help people before a fire.”

Captain Tarra Mungen

Captain Tara Mungen

Captain Tarra Mungen

Rian Watkins for Billy Penn

Facing a layoff at a different workplace, Mungen said she “fell into” a career with the PFD. “At the time, I just needed a job,” she said. “I never even knew there were female firefighters.”

But at her first assignment, Engine 40 in Southwest Philadelphia, Mungen “fell in love with it.” She now sees her job as a ministry, but there were some bumps along the way.

Mungen described going through a proving ground. “Like anyone, I had to earn my reputation — but as a woman, you do have to work twice as hard,” she said. She remembered receiving cool receptions from some men. “They just wouldn’t speak to you.”

Now stationed at Engine 1 in Center City, Mungen is PFD’s only Black woman captain, and said she plans to answer her calling to continue rising the ranks.

She noted that the younger male firefighters seem more accepting of working under ranking women . “It’s funny,” Mungen said, “My nickname is ‘boss.’ There was a time that never would have happened.”

 

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