Burned

Some hailed firefighters Julie Tossey and Kathleen O'Connor as symbols of a new era in gender equality in St. Paul. But others--including their own union--wanted to see their dreams go up in smoke.

In May 1999 the backyard of Julie Tossey's Chisago City home was transformed into a de facto firefighters' academy. Three eight-foot-long wooden railroad ties, purchased from Menards, were placed in front of her pole barn. Every day Tossey would don 50 pounds of gear--turnout coat, weighted vest, helmet, and air tank--shoulder a sledge hammer, and climb atop the two outside ties. Like a firefighter chopping through the door of a blazing building, she would then pound the middle tie with the sledgehammer, again and again, slowly moving the massive slab of wood across the dirt. In the year Tossey trained to become a St. Paul firefighter, she destroyed one railroad tie with her blows, splintering it so badly that the wood was useless.

A scavenged eight-foot tree trunk was outfitted with a rope so that she could lug it across the yard, 75 feet in one direction, 75 in the other. Sandbags were used to make a dummy that she could drag through the yard, as she would an unconscious victim from a burning building. A five-foot-high wooden platform was constructed to simulate a fire engine; Tossey would practice hauling a 58-pound hose bundle on and off of the structure. She and her husband, Ed Tossey, often wondered what the neighbors made of the strange goings-on.

The idea was to simulate every aspect of the physical test that Tossey would have to pass to fulfill her dream of becoming a St. Paul firefighter. For 11 years she had worked as a fire dispatcher in St. Paul, answering calls from harried citizens about burning buildings. She hoped to one day respond to those calls herself.

"This was not a whim," Ed says as he surveys the backyard training course from the Tossey family dining room. "I knew that she could do it."

Ed Tossey should know. He worked as a St. Paul firefighter for 13 years. While on the job, he broke his ribs falling through a floor, suffered smoke inhalation so severe that he could've died, and broke his neck and back. "If I thought for a second that she couldn't handle this job, I sure as hell wouldn't want her doing it," he insists.

Kathleen O'Connor did not have the luxury of a backyard training course to prepare for the rigors of firefighting. Nor did she have the support of a husband who knew the ins and outs of the trade. And while 40-year-old Tossey is a stocky five-foot-nine, the 49-year-old O'Connor has a more slight build, at five-foot-six.

O'Connor did have one thing going for her, though. Experience. Since 1994 she too had been employed as a fire dispatcher in St. Paul. At the same time, she worked as a paid volunteer for the Eden Prairie Fire Department. She hosed down smoldering buildings and chopped through doors, responded to false alarms and four-alarm fires. In all, O'Connor went out on more than 300 calls a year in Eden Prairie, for which she was paid $7 per trip. "She's toughed it out for 15 years and she's made a real positive contribution," says Eden Prairie Fire Chief Spencer Conrad. "She's like a family member."

Ever since joining the St. Paul Fire Department as a dispatcher O'Connor aspired to be a firefighter. She then hoped to train as a paramedic and respond to medical emergencies, an opportunity that wasn't available in Eden Prairie. She also looked forward to the jump in salary and retirement benefits that the job of full-time firefighter promised. As a single mother raising two daughters, O'Connor had found little opportunity to put money aside for the future. "We lived on next to nothing for all those years," she explains.

To some, suburban Eden Prairie may seem a far cry from the dense, century-old urbanity that is St. Paul. But O'Connor believes that when it comes to fighting fires--well, "firefighting is firefighting." She recalls the burning gasoline tanker she was dispatched to fight at 5:00 a.m. one morning in the late Eighties. The driver was burned over 90 percent of his body and did not survive. "There was just fire everywhere," O'Connor says, before pointing out that there was a similar fire last September in St. Paul. "Our calls are very much the same kinds of calls that St. Paul Fire responds to."

Tossey and O'Connor were two of seven dispatchers (six of whom were women) who took advantage of an affirmative-action program that was started a decade ago, aimed at bringing women onto the force. By the end of a yearlong vetting process that included a basic written exam and a grueling physical test, along with medical and psychological evaluations, Tossey and O'Connor were the only two dispatchers left standing. On October 16, 2000, they were to join 34 other recruits, two of whom were women, at the department's recruit orientation academy. Tossey and O'Connor believed that their days as dispatchers were over. They would retain their seniority rights, which ensured a larger paycheck and greater leverage in bidding for job benefits. Their hard work had paid off.

Within the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21, the union that represents firefighters in St. Paul, the department's affirmative-action program has always been seen as a threat to the membership--a symbol of the weakening of physical standards within the department, and an acquiescence to the forces of political correctness. In particular, Tossey and O'Connor's promotion irritates the rank-and-file because the women's years of dispatching work would give them seniority over some firefighters already on the job.

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