Posted on Fri, Sep. 26, 2003

UP FRONT | FIRE-RESCUE PIONEER

Miami-Dade's first female firefighter is retiring
Agnes Currier proved she could do the job, helping extinguish blazes and assisting at the ValuJet crash site.

BY DAVID OVALLE
dovalle@herald.com

Whole battalions of firefighters would gather to watch her train. Disgruntled wives picketed headquarters to protest her presence. A makeshift shower curtain was fashioned to protect her privacy.

Agnes Currier was known back then simply as ``The Woman.''

Come Sunday, 23 years after she hopped aboard her first neon green truck as the county department's first female fire fighter, Currier is retiring from Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue.

''I'm very proud of being a firefighter,'' Currier, 53, a Fort Lauderdale resident, said Thursday. ``It's amazing. I didn't see another women for like three years after I started.''

In 1980, the country was still waiting for its first female appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. It would be another four years before a woman was on the ballot for vice president. But a trickle of women were making the job title ''fireman'' old-fashioned; Miami Beach and Broward County had already hired their first female firefighters.

Agnes Gomes was a small but tough former standout freestyle and butterfly swimmer from North Miami Senior High. She loved the outdoors and enjoyed working at a marina with her soon-to-be husband, Jim Currier. Several Dade firefighters kept their boats there.

'They said, `You should apply to the fire department because we're going to be stuck with women anyway so we'd rather have you,' '' Currier recalled Thursday. ``It was sort of a back-handed compliment.''

She took their advice.

NO OTHER WOMEN

Doubts surfaced as soon as Currier drove her green Chevy van to Homestead for the first day of fire academy. She was told that there would be other female recruits.

There weren't.

Because there were no rules for women, Currier was forced to buzz-cut her hair just like the men. Her husband could only grimace when they would go out to dinner and endure stares.

During drills, as she dragged hose lines across 300-yard training fields or climbed ladders, men would congregate to see if she could handle the exercise.

''Whole groups would show up to see me, any kind of drill where you'd do physical labor,'' Currier said. ``There was always somebody watching.''

Many of the male firefighters complained that physical standards were being lowered to allow women to join. Currier had to repeat some tests because she was told she didn't have enough upper body strength.

But to her chagrin, indignation also came from other women. A group of firefighters' wives picketed Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue headquarters. One woman even tried to confront her -- until the woman realized Currier was a fellow Girl Scout troop leader.

She passed the fire academy and was sent to a station in North Miami, where she used a blanket strung over a pole as a curtain because the shower area was open.

The stigma of having a woman in the station was deep-rooted in a profession where men work 24-hour shifts -- working, eating, dressing and sleeping at the station. And firefighters also rely on the buddy system, often depending on each other in dangerous circumstances.

''They sleep together, they cook together, they go shopping together, and they stay up at night and watch porno movies on HBO together,'' the wife of one firefighter told The Herald in 1981. ``Having women in the station is not going to be comfortable for anybody.''

Said Currier: ``They were worried about their husbands having hanky-panky at the fire station. That's all they were worried about.''

MULTIPLE TALENTS

But Currier took the challenges in stride and, over the years, built up a wealth of experience. She became a paramedic after about a year. Among her qualifications now: scuba rescue, shipboard firefighting and driving the fire engines.

Her gender meant nothing when the Norway cruise ship exploded recently and she helped transport victims to the hospital. It meant nothing when her crew attended to emergency workers at the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Everglades.

Like many of her peers, she downplays her role as a lifesaver. ''The things that bother me the most are when kids get hurt,'' she said. ``Those are the times when you're more likely to call home.''

The climate of the job, of course, is more welcoming now. At most fire stations, firefighters sleep in separate cubicle-like rooms. Newer stations have separate bathrooms and showers.

Few publicly question whether women are strong enough to haul thick hoses to help extinguish blazes. Today, as Currier and her husband prepare to move from Fort Lauderdale to upstate New York to be closer to family, such things seems silly.

Currier was honored Thursday by her peers during a ceremony at the Haulover Beach station in Northeast Miami-Dade County. The department, largest in the Southeastern U.S., looks little like it did when she joined.

Fire-Rescue officials say they employ 218 female firefighters, or about 14 percent of the department. Miami-Dade has the largest number of female firefighters of any large fire department in the country, according to Capt. Louie Fernandez.

''All the other ladies out here are extremely proud of you,'' Miami-Dade Chief Antonio Bared told Currier.

Among them, Lt. Anna Falco, 36.

''It's a motivation knowing that I'm working with [one of] the first female firefighters in Dade County,'' Falco said.

``She's inspirational.''