San Francisco celebrates 30th anniversary of first women to join the fire department

- Station 33 in San Francisco: small house, big heart and a lot of laughs. Sheila Hunter is the lieutenant and
one of first women in the San Francisco Fire Department.

“The thing about it is, I think back to when I came in…,” Hunter said, stopping in mid-sentence. “We have to stop, we got a call, lets go.”

And just like that, the interview is on the road. From engine 33, to helping a man in need, the interview proceeded.

In 1987, there were two academies, including seven women. They were known as "Feinstein’s finest.” Dianne Feinstein was mayor at the time and Sheila Hunter was one of the first seven – and the only African American woman in the department at the time.

Hunter said the shifts were long and lonely. At times, it was clear that some men wanted her out.

“For someone to tell me that to my face…there’s one memorable time where a group of guys said we don’t think you should be here, you can’t do the job,” Hunter said. “OK, I’ll show you.”

Thirteen years later, she’s a lieutenant. Hunter says she continuously has to prove herself.
What's different, though, is she now has a lot more support.

Fellow firefighters speak to the character of their boss:

“She's done well. We’ve worked many fires together and she’s a real good person to work for.”

“She led the way for all the women in this department and others around the country. That's something we're proud of.”

“Whether you're a bum on the street or one of the rich people in this town, she treats you the same way and that's what she's taught me. It’s an honor and pleasure to work for he.”

And so, given the road traveled, what would Shelia today tell Shelia 30 years ago?

“To be myself – I’m a really shy person,” Hunter said. “I probably would have pursued advancement a little more aggressively than what I did.”

And the firefighter drive is consistent throughout the Hunter household. Sheila’s husband and their daughter are all in the department. The mother/daughter combo recently worked the same shift at 33 -- a special moment, Hunter described.

Special, much like the photo of 272 uniformed women now working in the San Francisco Fire Department.

“When we had the picture taken at Chrissy field, I stopped and looked around and realized I was instrumental in all the women paving the way,” Hunter said.

Hunter’s advice to young women who want to become a firefighter is there will be highs and lows, but in the end, you got to go for it and always strive to attain your goals.

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