Girls Only: San Diego's All-Female Firefighting Crew

Two decades ago, Melissa Cleary found herself at the scene of a car accident. When the firefighters responded, Cleary was shocked to see a woman jump out of the truck.

"It was the first time it actually occurred to me that maybe I could be a firefighter," Cleary said.

Cleary was so affected, she tracked the female firefighter down and followed her into the profession. Today, Cleary, 47, is the engineer on Engine 22, San Diego's all-female fire crew.

Even in the 21st century, firefighting is a male-dominated world. Nationwide, only 2.5 percent of firefighters are women. In San Diego, women make up 8 percent of the force.

Engine 22 -- composed of Cleary; April Lallo, 41; Joi Evans, 47; and Robyn Benincasa, 39 -- was never intended to be all female. Firefighters bid for spots at stations as they open up, and the system is based on seniority.

"We didn't plan this, but it's excellent," said Evans, the crew's captain. Evans got into firefighting 19 years ago, just 13 years after the first female career firefighter was hired in the United States.

"A lot has changed, and it's all been for the better," Evans said. "We now have uniforms that fit us much better. We have pregnancy policies. We have stations that are designed for women. … It's made it a much more comfortable world."

But the women of Engine 22 are expected to perform the same jobs as the men, and in order to do that all four are in top physical condition. Cleary has run 33 marathons, and Benincasa has completed seven Ironman Triathlons and competes in adventure racing.

"I don't think people care who responds to a fire or a paramedic call," said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. "They want the most qualified."

Engine 22 proved its worth three years ago during the Cedar fires -- the biggest wildfire in California history -- which killed 15 people, destroyed 2,200 homes, and burned 273,000 acres.

"It was an amazing experience," Evans said.

The women of Engine 22 hope they can inspire girls to consider firefighting.

"A lot of people notice us," Cleary said. "I think if teenage girls or even girls in their 20s notice us, they will realize they could to this too, that it's possible."

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