Boston Fire Department welcomes its first Asian American woman firefighter

BOSTON, Massachusetts—Boston isn’t as much a stranger to making history in the space of diversity as one might think. The city’s professional basketball franchise, for example, was the first to break the NBA color barrier, when it drafted the first African American player. That was in 1950. Boston - and the United States - was a different place. Almost 70 years later Boston is again embracing diversity by breaking barriers, as the Boston Fire Department welcomed its first-ever Asian American woman as a firefighter.

            May Ho, a Vietnamese American, was among the 61 graduates from BFD’s training academy. Her father, 76-year-old Na Ho, pinned the graduation badge on the new graduate’s blazer. He and his wife reportedly came to the United States more than four decades ago. They came here with six children, according to a Boston Herald report. May Ho, who is 33, was the seventh and last child to join the family - she’s the only of the seven children to be born in the United States.

            Each of the graduates reportedly endured a 21-week training program before participating in a graduation ceremony on the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France.

            The elevation of May Ho into the ranks of BFD’s firefighters comes about six months after a law firm issued its ‘Report on the Status of Female Firefighters in the Boston Fire Department.’

            About 1 percent of BFD’s firefighters - 16 out of about 1,500 - were women at the time of the report (December 2018).

            One of the barriers to bringing more women into the fold, according to the December 2018 report, is a requirement the department hire firefighters with military service.

            “The Boston Fire Department is male dominated and has struggled to become more diverse with regard to gender. It presently employs only 16 women out of approximately 1,500 uniformed firefighters,” the report, which was authored by three attorneys at Stoneman Chandler & Miller, said. “Although the Department desires more women, it cannot legally hire them because of constraints imposed by the Civil Service system that limits BFD from hiring off of civil service lists within statutory preferences including residency and veteran status.”

            The report added only nine of the 33 firehouses within the fire department had an assigned female firefighter, but the absence or minimal presence of women at a firehouse should not excuse inappropriate or unprofessional behavior.

            “Regardless of whether women are present, the standard of acceptable conduct should be the same in all firehouses and other locations and must be enforced uniformly at all times,” the report stated. “The fact that women are not present should not be allowed to excuse behavior that is not professional and appropriate. Moreover, it is not necessarily just women who may find gender based comments or conduct unacceptable.”

            A culture change is required and BFD should be the standard-bearer of such change, the report’s authors continued.

            “The department, not the women and sympathetic men, should bear the responsibility for changing the culture. To do so, the department needs to regularly solicit and obtain the opinions of men and women firefighters,” the report’s authors stated.

            Yet voices might be stifled, the report’s authors acknowledged. The perspectives of some might not be heard or shared out of fear of backlash or negative feedback.

            “There is understandable reluctance to bring forward complaints and issues for fear of being labeled a ‘complainer.’ Firefighters also fear having the issue labeled just a personality conflict, or being shunned or excluded from inclusion in normal conversation around the kitchen table, in front of the television or in other aspects of life in the firehouse,” the report’s authors stated. “Attention needs to be paid to changing this pervasive perspective and replacing it with one which actively solicits suggestions and concerns to create a better work environment.

            “The requisite change will require enhancing trust in the department’s ability to address issues of gender and race without blame and assuring both men and women that investigations will be fair and equitable,” the report’s authors continued.

            You can view the full report here.