The Woman Who Played With Fire

Sophy Medina conquered boot camp and mastered the Marine Corps. Now she faces her toughest challenge yet: breaking into the white- and male-dominated New York City Fire Department.

The Woman Who Played With Fire

June 2008: Night has spilled into morning. Sophy Medina and a friend are coming home from a party, both buzzed and each dressed in one of their more cleavage-bearing outfits. They walk up to the door of Medina’s apartment and, while fiddling around with her keys, Medina turns around to face a mugger holding a gun, its nozzle inches away from the right side of her chest, slightly below her collarbone. He asks for her purse. She immediately gives it to him. A second mugger screams at her friend to hand over her valuables; she reaches into her purse and gives him her phone and money. The gun-toting mugger’s free hand lightly grazes Medina’s inner thigh, hinting that the worst might still be to come.

“At that point I thought, ‘Me and this dude are both going to die before that happens,’” Medina says. After four years in the Marine Corps, Medina can hurt someone quite easily, gun or no gun. It’s hard to say how she invoked that strength with merely a look, but that was all she needed to do, and the muggers knew to walk away.

Medina detailed her account of the incident to some friends at a New Year’s Eve party six months later. Hispanic and around five-foot-two, Medina wore gold heels, chandelier earrings and low-cut, hip-hugging jeans. She weighed in at a healthy 145 pounds—mostly muscle in a diminutive package. She at least hoped it was muscle because she’d gained fifteen pounds since starting the training course required to become a New York City firefighter, shortly after the mugging. Her face has always captivated men and most of her Facebook photos show her wearing dresses that enhance her many curves, exuding a Herculean femininity. Though unhappy with the weight gain, she understood that the extra pounds were a less-than-ideal but necessary symptom of the job—one that would challenge her physical and emotional limits like no other career a former Marine could have possibly chosen.

Medina joined the military after high school to take financial burden off her single mother. Rarely one to back down from a challenge, she decided on the Marines because of its reputation as the most rigorous branch of the military. “If I’m going to do it I’m going to do it,” Medina, now thirty-two, says confidently.

She asked her best friend, Meosha Williams, to come with her. The pair met in high school after both girls chose swim class over volleyball, because as one or the other said at the time, “Volleyball can’t save your life.” They entered the Marines through the Buddy System, a program often employed as a recruiting tool since it guarantees that friends who enlist together go through boot camp together as well. Or, as Williams says, “It’s what they use to get you in without you feeling too much pressure.”

Williams, now a teacher after completing college funded by the Montgomery GI bill, agreed to accompany Medina because, as she puts it, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school, but I just knew it wouldn’t be here in the Bronx.”

Both women consider basic training a struggle unmatched by anything they had done before and cite each other as the main reason they survived it. Their predilection for having fun together in just about any situation didn’t hurt either. While other recruits had their confidence broken by instructors, Medina and Williams often got in trouble for laughing too much. Given their strict upbringing, neither Medina nor Williams considered being yelled at or publicly humiliated particularly grievous. They would even laugh at situations other recruits found completely mortifying. “Girls would cry every day, and we were just happy that we were not getting beaten,” Medina says. “She grew up in a household where her mom would beat her if she did something wrong and [so did I]. All [the instructors] would do is scream at us and we were like, ‘Pfft, this is great!’”

Sophy Medina (front row, second from right) graduates from Maintenance Management school in the Marines. (Photo courtesy Sophy Medina)
Sophy Medina (front row, second from right) graduates from Maintenance Management school in the Marines. (Photo courtesy Sophy Medina)

But there was one instance when they couldn’t help but cry, if only for a moment. “The first time we cried was when our birthdays passed by; they are close to one another, and we both didn’t get a card,” Medina says. “We just looked at each other and I think she went to the bathroom and I went to the laundry room or vice versa. I finally went to look for her. I was so upset and she was so upset. We thought everyone forgot about us. Then we both looked at each other and started laughing.”

They each received cards in the coming days.

The Marines separate female recruits during boot camp and each platoon is led by another enlisted woman. “There is no distraction with boys and girls together,” Medina says. “And you’re taught by a female, which is good because it’s not like a man saying ‘You can do it’ and not showing you that you can do it. It’s like ‘Yeah, you can do it – I look like you, I’m shaped like you.’” Other than some minor differences, such as slower running requirements for women, the demands for all recruits, regardless of sex, are the same. “I fared well in basic training,” Medina says proudly. “The only part that I always have problems with is running. Running sucks and the Marines love running fast. I can trot for days but running all the time, fast, I’m like, ‘You guys can keep that.’”

While often dubbed a sexist culture, ill-equipped to handle gender inequities, Medina found that the Marines celebrate physical grit so much that anyone, male or female, strong enough to graduate from boot camp is considered a bona fide Marine.

Today only six percent of enlisted Marines are females. Medina is no longer one of them. The Marines exhausted her. “They just run you,” she says. “You’re always doing something, or could be doing something, so they say, ‘Why stand when you can sit? Why sit when you can lie down? Why lie down if you can sleep?’”

So she left.

It’s December 2010 and Medina has the night off; in fact, the next couple of days off. The fire department never sleeps so her work schedule demands unorthodox hours. She receives a text message from someone who works at another firehouse asking if she could take his shift the next day. She agrees to, recognizing the importance of establishing a good rapport with firemen in other houses.

Her friends often say, “Oh my god, you must work around hot guys all the time.” But Medina swears she’s never been attracted to anyone in her firehouse. “It’s also a bit taboo,” she says. She pauses, then adds: “And ya’ know, they tawk like this: Sophy, how ya’ do-win. Hey yo bada bing bada boom.” She admits she’s exaggerating as she imitates men in her firehouse, the way a sister would a brother, and as though she’s been given that right as a member of its tight-knit, devoted community.

The gentle hazing goes both ways. “You know you’re included when they don’t censor themselves anymore,” Medina says. “When I first got there it’d be like, ‘Don’t talk like that in front of her.’ And now it’s like ‘Oh, it’s Medina, it’s cool.’” Typical boys club subjects ranging from poop to sex aren’t excluded. “If they are talking about anything sexual,” she continues, “I’ll just listen but I’m not going to participate in that. If I did, they’d look at me totally different.”

Of course, when she entered the Fire Department, it was not only her gender that made her stand out. For many decades, the FDNY has been considered an organization that Irish- and Italian-Americans built, and is still filled with many of those whom Medina has affectionately termed “the O people”: O’Sheas, O’Connells and O’Reillys. The department remained ethnically homogenous for so many years that in 2007, minority applicants sued the FDNY for discrimination, and a judge found there was enough evidence to support the claim that recruitment exams discriminated against blacks and Hispanics. As a remedy, the judge ordered that “out of every five entry-level hires, the Fire Department must agree to reserve two hires for black priority applicants and one for a Hispanic priority applicant until 293 qualifying minority candidates have been offered a position.” The city successfully appealed the ruling earlier this year, but new initiatives instituted to increase minority recruitment remain in place.

Today, minorities make up sixty-six of the latest probationary class of FDNY applicants entering its training program. (Medina’s hire predates the ruling.)

When pitting the Marines against the Fire Department in a physical standoff, Medina found the fire department training far more grueling.

“I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect,” she explains. “But I figured that if I did the Marines then I can do the Fire Department. It was eye-opening when I did [the FDNY] training, because it was, like, just always physical all the time.”

For the first three months of instruction, Medina only had time to sleep. Otherwise, she was at the Academy running obstacle courses. “Mentally you just have to overcome it,” she says. “You just can’t stop, take a breath and keep going. The more you think about it, the worse it is.”

The physical component of the job is what makes the issue of gender equality so contentious. Is it discriminatory or can many women just not cut it? One argument is that people can’t circumvent the laws of biology—women are weaker. Writing in the New York Post, columnist Andrea Peyser opined: “Maybe it’s me. But if I were to be caught in a fire, I’d feel a lot safer in the arms of a six-foot man than those of a five-foot girl.” While membership in the FDNY does not even closely reflect the ethnic make-up of the city, many claim that through this ruling, the courts have sanctioned some sort of reverse discrimination. FDNY Deputy Chief Paul Mannix and president of Merit Matters, an organization opposed to race- and gender-based hiring, told the Post, “People ask why there aren’t more women in the Fire Department. Why aren’t there more women in the NFL or Major League Baseball?” The comment incited a battle between Mannix and Regina Wilson of the United Women Firefighters, an organization attempting to bolster female recruitment. Wilson fiercely defends a woman’s right to equal consideration at the department, adding that in order for recruitment to be fair, the requirements for a firefighter should call for less upper body strength and more technique. The suggestion of adjusting the physical requirements of the exam unlocked a firestorm of dissent, and the physical test remains the same for men and women.

The first female firefighter was a slave. She volunteered in a New York City firehouse in 1818. Her name was Molly Williams and her achievement is often marked by a quote saying that she was “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.” If true, Williams overcame a huge hurdle, one that exists almost two centuries later in the department, where females are still struggling to be considered physically competent and asexual enough to hang out in the company of men.

The first paid career U.S. firefighter, Judith Brewer, wasn’t hired until more than a century and a half later, in Arlington, Virginia, in 1974. The wives of the men in her house demanded a meeting to discuss the hire. Brewer was quoted as saying that they “were upset about their husbands bunking with a woman.”

In 2000, there were a total of twenty women in the FDNY. Twelve years later the tally was thirty-four. The most recent probationary class accepted eight, the most of any class dating back to 1982, when females were first allowed into service. However, four of the eight females have since dropped out of training.

Medina graduated from firefighter training in December 2008 with three other female recruits. A year after her placement, Medina’s firehouse had its annual dinner dance. The wife of a firefighter in her house walked up to her and said that when she heard four women were graduating that year, she hoped none would report to duty at her husband’s firehouse.

Medina (left) in uniform with fellow member of the FDNY. (Photo courtesy FDNY)
Medina (left) in uniform with fellow member of the FDNY. (Photo courtesy FDNY)

When people ask Medina what it’s like to be a “fireman,” a surprisingly frequent occurrence, she used to let the misusage slide. But after getting off the Engine 9/Ladder 6’s fire truck one day and being asked yet again, she almost involuntarily responded, “I’m not a fireman, I’m a firefighter.” Aside from the perks—Medina has met celebrities and been featured in videos and ads created to promote increased female and ethnic recruitment—she appears a bit frayed from the initial gender obstacles she met in her firehouse. Her housemates harangue her for doing the dishes at work with gloves on so as to not ruin her manicure (“Would you worry about your nails in a fire too?” they’ve cackled) and give her double-takes when she walks in with her curls out and tight pants on before changing into her uniform and pulling her hair back into a bun.

The house had never before found a female in its ranks. They were required by law to build Medina a bathroom before she arrived. As an induction, senior firemen have a habit of testing junior fighters’ toughness—and then seeing how long it will take for them to snap. “They call it ‘breaking balls,’” Medina says. A self-proclaimed “emotional wuss,” she often thinks to herself, “Hey, I ain’t got no balls, so stop trying. I got feelings and when you break ‘em they hurt!”

Medina earned her stripes during her first five-alarm fire. She will never forget the day: February 24, 2009. Judy Brewer once recalled that on the day of her first fire, “Everybody watched me. Everybody asked everybody else, ‘What did Judy do on that fire?’ I knew this would keep happening until I gained their acceptance.”

Medina’s unit was the second one to reach the scene, an overcrowded tenement building in Chinatown. Medina was positioned at the door, feeding hose and monitoring conditions away from the fire, while an officer and nozzle team were inside. Once the first team had been in too long—the masks are only equipped to keep fighters safe for fifteen to twenty minutes before they run out of air—Medina was called in to relieve them. She went into the building as directed. She was scared. It would have been odd if she weren’t—“not human,” she says. Two people died. She wasn’t sure she was going to make it out and prayed that she wouldn’t die on her sister’s birthday.

October 2013: Medina is seven-months pregnant. Her fiancé, Tommy Olsen, is in the Department, a firefighter who works in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. They spent their first Valentine’s Day together as a couple in the emergency room after each getting injured trying to extinguish a fire in the East Village. Medina is working a desk job until she gives birth—an option the Department gives to firefighters who are expecting. After maternity leave, she will return to active duty.

Medina has moved into Olsen’s house in Brooklyn, which he and his cousin are sprucing up whenever Olsen’s not working. Each room displays a different level of completeness. They’d like it to be finished in time for the baby. Medina is often astonished at Olsen’s boundless energy in completing tasks around the house. “I’ve asked him, ‘How do you do that?’” She says he responds jokingly: “I’m a working class white guy, what do you expect?”

When Olsen addresses Medina, he calls her “love.” They’ve been together for three years, yet behave with a familiarity that demonstrates a much more mature relationship. The house belongs to Olsen’s parents, to whom they pay rent, and someone in his family owns most of the houses on the block. Medina jokes than an Olsen could unofficially serve as mayor. The parlor floor patio, still lacking steps to the ground, has thick, brown poles of wood intersecting vertically with the platform, unattached to a top beam. When it’s finished, Medina thinks she might get married out there. The living room will be eventually converted for dining, and Olsen is installing a radiator in the third floor baby’s room. Medina’s large, framed picture of Audrey Hepburn is perched on a dresser outside their bedroom. She wants the walls there repainted since she considers the sludgy, blue-green color too “boyish.”