Women in firefighting
Fighting fires is a male-dominated profession.
The numbers aren’t even close. Nationally, women make up about 3.7 percent of firefighters, according to a 2008 study from the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services. There are about 30 female fire chiefs.
In Collier County, there are eight female firefighters working for nine fire-rescue agencies, about 2 percent of the workforce. There are 51 female first responders working for Collier County EMS, some of whom are state-certified firefighters.
Rita Greenberg is Collier’s only female fire chief. Becky Pogan Bronsdon, 52, is an assistant fire chief at the North Naples Fire Control and Rescue District.
Jodi Van Sickle, a North Naples lieutenant, is one of the eight active women firefighters in Collier County. Van Sickle began in Collier EMS. She’s currently leading training in the district’s new paramedic program.
Van Sickle, 36, said she’s not sure why there aren’t more women in the profession but speculates it may have something to do with how strenuous the job can be.
Her advice to females she meets while on duty: “Don’t ever let someone tell you you’re not strong enough or smart enough. You just have to work for it.”
IMMOKALEE — When Rita Greenberg delivered the recommendation to lay off some of her men in 2010, she cried.
Emotions didn’t allow the Big Corkscrew Island fire chief to finish her prepared statement to fire commissioners with its difficult conclusion that the district couldn’t afford to keep everyone on staff after tax revenue plummeted by nearly half in a two-year period.
Instead, she passed her notes to Mike Ginson, the assistant chief, to finish.
Greenberg, 43, said was embarrassed that she wasn’t able to hold it together.
Firefighters, even the ones laid off, saw it differently.
“It showed it wasn’t easy for her,” said Albert Heasley, who lost his job after the fire commission approved Greenberg’s recommendation. “That’s how you knew the chief cared.”
Greenberg promised Heasley and the others to do everything in her power to bring them back. Eight months later, she did, thanks to a federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) grant she applied for after the layoffs.
Big Corkscrew Island firefighters and officials credit Greenberg’s leadership and compassion for leading the department past its most difficult financial year.
Now, after the Immokalee Fire District accepted an offer from Corkscrew to essentially share the chief, Greenberg is challenged with bringing stability back to a department that’s suffered its own budget crisis and layoffs this year.
Through a year-long agreement, Greenberg and Ginson act as part-time chief and assistant chief for the Immokalee fire district after its commissioners sacked its fire chief, Scott Birge, in May.
The two will keep their full-time roles at Corkscrew.
Greenberg and Ginson’s first task was to help balance Immokalee’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
“We’ve had a lot of extra meetings,” said Greenberg, who had to prepare two district budgets at once. “It couldn’t have come at a busier year.”
The toughest work already was done for them after the Immokalee fire board eliminated six firefighter and one fire inspector positions and the firefighters agreed to a 10 percent pay cut.
As she did for Big Corkscrew, Greenberg is applying for a grant to pay for lost firefighter positions in Immokalee.
The biggest challenge for the Immokalee fire district, however, may be rebuilding frayed relationships.
There’s been a clear disconnect between the board and firefighters, especially since the board unilaterally laid off six firefighters without even meeting with the union.
“That’s the next area we’re working on,” she said, “to get them to work as a team as opposed to opposing units.”
After a pause, she sighed, “I’m going to get yelled at for that one, but it’s true.”
Immokalee Fire Commissioner Pam Brown, who has taken an active role in getting the fire district back in order after its financial crisis, said she thinks firefighters and commissioners are making progress.
“As far I know right now, we’re all working together,” she said. “That’s what I hope we’ll be able to do in the future.”
However, Robert Mendoza, who became Immokalee’s new fire union president this month, said firefighters believe the commissioners still have a lot to learn about how the fire service is run.
“I think the morale is low,” he said.
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Greenberg is short, especially compared to most of the firefighters she works with. She’s got shoulder-length brown hair and trimmed bangs. A pair of sport sunglasses typically rest on top of her head. She looks more the part of the elementary teacher she set out to be after college, rather than a fire chief.
In 1989, she signed up to volunteer at Big Corkscrew Island fire district as a way to spend more time with her husband, Stephen, who then was serving as a volunteer firefighter for the district. Stephen Greenberg is now a firefighter in Lee County.
Greenberg started as a member of the auxiliary support group, performing office duties and serving cold beverages to firefighters in the field. When that didn’t provide enough excitement, she signed on as a volunteer firefighter.
She also worked as a secretary before being hired as a professional firefighter. She became chief in 2004.
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Greenberg has a way of being honest and frank, without being either blunt or rude, and is universally praised within her department.
Eric Watson, Big Corkscrew Island’s captain and former union chief, said Greenberg’s strengths come from good communication and her willingness and ability to see issues from as many angles as possible.
When the district was making its toughest decisions last year, cutting two firefighters and going to residents to ask for a tax increase, Greenberg said her policy was “being open and honest about what’s taking place.”
Big Corkscrew Island fire district continues to scrape by financially with losses in tax revenue from falling property values. However, the district succeeded in providing a preliminary budget that raised taxes, but not as high as a 2010 voter referendum allowed.
“She’s a true leader,” Watson said, “And from the country’s perspective, we’re starving for true leaders.”
Faith in Greenberg in Big Corkscrew isn’t as apparent in Immokalee – at least not yet.
Mendoza stresses that firefighters have a good relationship with the new administration. However, when asked if firefighters are feeling optimistic yet about the district’s future, he said, “It’s a little too soon.”
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It’s not uncommon for neighboring fire agencies to share resources. In recent years, Immokalee was using Corkscrew’s mechanic on their apparatus. However, sharing chiefs is fairly unique.
“With the situation as it is, and with (Greenberg) knowing the county’s existing relationship with us, I felt like this was the best option,” Brown said.
So did the other Immokalee fire commissioners who voted unanimously to extend a 30-day trial run with Greenberg to a full year.
Brown said the commissioners haven’t yet talked about the long-term future of the chief’s position, but that likely will come up for discussion eventually.
“We’re all going through tough economic times and all of us are trying to make the best decision for the district,” Brown said.
Although the two districts’ commissioners aren’t in discussion about fully merging the departments, some, like former Immokalee firefighters’ union president Thomas Cunningham, say this kind of arrangement could be the first step in fire district consolidation.
Greenberg said there’s potential for close ties between the two fire districts to continue, but she thinks the Immokalee district will get back on its feet regardless.
“Immokalee,” she said, “is a resilient town.”