Capriles, who retired as deputy chief in 2018, said that during the earlier part of her tenure, Palo Alto had a higher proportion of women than any department in the state, going to as high as 13 women at its apex. The chief who hired her, Ruben Grijalva, prioritized recruitment of women and minorities, she said. The class before hers, she noted, had seven women and three men.
"He made it a priority," Capriles told the Weekly. "He fought for and made specific decisions toward recruiting minorities and women."
Today, the Palo Alto Fire Department is one of many across the nation that is struggling — and failing — to recruit female firefighters. According to a recent Santa Clara County civil grand jury report — titled "Why aren't there more female firefighters?" — Palo Alto had 90 male firefighters and just five female firefighters in 2019. After the retirement of a female captain last December and staffing reductions due to budget cuts, the city now has 81 firefighters, four of whom are women, Fire Chief Geo Blackshire told the City Council on March 15 during a discussion of the report.
The grand jury surveyed four fire agencies in the county — the Palo Alto Fire Department, the Mountain View Fire Department, the San Jose Fire Department and Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District — and issued a set of recommendations to remove or reduce existing barriers for female firefighters, including the creation of a recruiting plan tailored toward growing the number of female firefighters.
Of the agencies surveyed, only Mountain View has such a recruiting plan — a key reason for why 10% of its department consists of female firefighters, compared to just 2% in San Jose, 7% in Santa Clara County and 5% in Palo Alto, according to the report.
The report also recommends that the fire departments adopt mentoring programs to guide potential recruits, new recruits and current firefighters. These programs should include visits to local schools and organizations to demonstrate encouragement. The surveyed fire agencies were also advised to create plans to address the "unique challenges in the gender-inclusive work culture for women in the setting of a fire department."
While workplace diversity is broadly accepted as an inherently good quality, the grand jury highlights the special attributes that women bring to firefighting services. Most calls that the Fire Department receives, the report notes, are for medical situations or transports. The jury cited numerous calls in which the presence of a female firefighter brought a "calming effect to medical situations."
"For example, having a female present during childbirth labor or after a sexual assault was seen as beneficial," the report states. "Another example includes an instance where a naked, elderly woman fell in the shower and the victim's relief was noticeable as her shoulders relaxed upon seeing a female firefighter enter the room. The female firefighter entered first and covered her up."
But for Palo Alto and many other cities across the county, the effort to recruit women has fallen well off the mark. The grand jury found that only 4% of the firefighters in the county are women. It attributed the dwindling number to insufficient female recruitment, gender bias and a "lack of inclusivity" within the fire agencies.
"I feel the intent was always there and there was always a lot of asking, 'What should we do? What should we do?' But it just felt like it didn't get followed through on," said Jennifer Krusing, who retired as a captain from the Palo Alto Fire Department in 2019.
Like other agencies, the department has had to contend with a shrunken pool of female applicants. The grand jury found that only 3% of the 1,994 applicants who applied to be firefighters in the four surveyed departments in 2016 were women. Some of that is a function of inadequate recruiting, the jury concluded.
Krusing agreed. She noted that when she and a colleague attended a regional girls camp — a prime opportunity to teach high school girls about firefighting — several years ago the city had declined to pay them for the time they spent there. The city also hasn't gone as far as it could have in reaching out to students, college athletes and other potential recruits.
"I feel like they didn't want to do what it took to start this," Krusing said. "You've got to start early. You've got to be more proactive."
Budget challenges often hampered the city's ability to recruit women, Capriles said. The department often did not have dedicated funding for recruitment and was forced to tap into its hiring budget. Mountain View, which Capriles said had no women in its Fire Department in 1994, recognized this challenge and allocated $30,000 for the recruitment of women. Palo Alto has not taken that step.
"In the past, they have made that decision," Capriles said, referring to spending more on recruitment. "In the last 10 years, they have not made that decision."
While insufficient recruitment is one barrier to increasing the number of women, harassment is another. The grand jury report notes that while every department has a nondiscrimination policy, "The unique work setting of a fire department coupled with the low number of women in fire service presents out-of-the ordinary workplace challenges because they live together and rely on each other during life-or-death situations."
"These unique features of this workplace make it more challenging for women to report discrimination and/or harassment," the report states.
While Capriles said the vast majority of her colleagues were "awesome people" and — in some cases — "friends for life," harassment was a persistent issue for female firefighters. In most cases, she said, the person making an inappropriate comment didn't realize that he said something sexist until someone pointed it out to them.
Sexism can take subtle forms. Capriles recalled an instance in which a training instructor paused to apologize to her — the only woman in the class — before proceeding to tell an inappropriate story. During a break, she confronted the instructor about his behavior, which she called "embarrassing and inappropriate," and noted that the only reason he offered an apology was because she was in the room, and not because the story was offensive.
While most incidents don't get reported to the city's Human Resources Department, when they do, the follow-up can be underwhelming. Krusing recalled one episode when a firefighter made an inappropriate comment around her, and a colleague overheard the comment and filed a grievance on Krusing's behalf, alleging harassment. Over the course of the investigation, Krusing said she was asked by Human Resources what she would like the city to do.
"It was a really hard question because I felt like any kind of a behavior coming from above to punish him for those things would be counterproductive," she said. "I wanted to know they supported me, but I felt like what I really, really wanted to happen was for my peers, for the captains and their peers, to have my back and say, 'That's not cool, that's not the way we treat people.'"
In responding to the grand jury, the city cited its anti-harassment policy and its belief that "prevention is the best tool for the elimination of harassment."
"Steps to prevent and correct workplace harassment include affirmatively raising the subject through training and written policy, expressing strong disapproval of inappropriate conduct, and developing appropriate sanctions."
The city also notes in its response that reports of unwelcome conduct are "thoroughly investigated and, where founded, appropriate disciplinary action up to and including termination will be taken."
At the same time, both Krusing and Capriles said that most incidents of this sort go unreported.
"You have to remember, women in the fire services are in different positions than someone who works in an office. You live with these guys, you put your life in their hands and there are certain things you have decided to put up with," Capriles said, referring to casual harassment. "When you get into the fire service, there is a decision you make to put up with that."
The sexist comments and innuendos were a major reason that Capriles said she had decided to retire five years earlier than initially planned.
"Sometimes you get to a point where you say, 'Life is too short,'" Capriles said.
City responds to grand jury recommendations
In addressing the grand jury's findings, Palo Alto leaders on March 15 touted the city's recent changes to support female firefighters, including adding gender-separated locker rooms and removing a requirement that all job applicants be licensed paramedics or EMTs — a requirement that the grand jury highlighted as a major barrier to female applicants. Capriles credited Blackshire, who became chief in 2019, for his attempts to bring more women in, including changing the application requirements several years ago.
At the same time, Blackshire and the council acknowledged at the meeting that it will take additional time, effort and money for the city to raise the number of female firefighters in the city's ranks. Recruiting girls to get interested in firefighting is, by nature, a long-term strategy. And because the department is currently under a hiring freeze, the revised application requirement will take years to have any tangible effect on department demographics.
Blackshire said the department has made "tremendous efforts" to increase the applicant pool. But he also noted that the number of women in the department is now at its lowest level since he joined the department in 1997.
"We're looking to make more efforts in recruitment and education and awareness and outreach, which is really, really key," Blackshire told the council. "I also see it as a social issue, where we have to tell women when they're young girls ... that firefighting is a career for them as well."
In its response to the grand jury, the city notes that it has already implemented four of the five applicable recommendations. These include developing a mentoring program, evaluating fire stations to make sure women are accommodated, approving a plan for a gender-inclusive workplace and issuing uniforms that are tailored for women firefighters. The city is also moving ahead with a plan to improve the recruitment of female firefighters, though it does not expect to complete the plan by the grand jury's deadline of this June.
When it comes to gender-separated facilities, the city's response notes that six of Palo Alto's seven fire stations (all but the one on Stanford University's campus) have separated dorms, while five have separate restrooms with showers and four have separate locker rooms.
Yet accommodations still sometimes pose a problem for female firefighters. When the city was building its new Station 3 near Rinconada Park and firefighters had to temporarily relocate to a Geng Road building near the Baylands, that temporary station did not have separate facilities. Krusing said that when female firefighters brought up the lack of accommodations, one supervisor floated the idea of simply not sending women to that station. (Krusing said the department did not follow through on that suggestion.)
The council vowed on Monday to support Blackshire's efforts to increase the number of women in the Fire Department and to provide him with a dedicated budget for the effort. Council members Alison Cormack and Greer Stone both said they would support spending more on recruiting women and touted the benefits of having a more diverse Fire Department. Cormack noted that firefighters often meet people during "one of the worst days of their lives" and that the presence of a woman can be an advantage.
Stone said the city should follow Mountain View's example and set a goal of having at least 10% of the Fire Department be female.
"I'm excited to see what we can come up with, as well as encouraging additional outreach within our own local school districts, at an early level, to really put it out there that this is a career for all genders and all people," Stone said.