West Sacramento’s Deputy Fire Chief Rebecca “Becky”’ Ramirez never saw a female firefighter growing up and certainly never considered a career in the field.
In fact, when she and her husband, Adam Ramirez, were taking classes at a San Bernardino County-area community college, she encouraged him to enroll in a firefighting course offered there.
“He finally looked at me one day and said, ‘Why don’t you be a fireman?’ ” Ramirez said. “I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I be a fireman? Do women do that?’ ”
More than two decades later, Ramirez, 51, has worked her way through the ranks of the West Sacramento Fire Department, earning a spot as the second-in-command.
On Monday, the city’s deputy fire chief will transition to a new role in a different city: fire chief for the Woodland Fire Department.
3.5 Percentage of women firefighters nationally
“She was a dynamic leader as she went through the different ranks in the department, and she never hesitated to take on a challenge,” West Sacramento Fire Chief John Heilmann said. “Our department is prepared for her to leave, but it’s still a huge hit.”
After deciding to test a career in firefighting, Ramirez enrolled in the fire academy at Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa. She also attended paramedics school and served as a volunteer firefighter.
“At that point, they are just looking for somebody who had a good attitude and who wants to work hard,” said Ramirez, who was born in San Bernardino and spent her early years in Southern California. “Getting females into the fire service was really new back then.”
The volunteer position gave her a taste of what a career in firefighting would entail. A natural athlete and swimmer, Ramirez said she enjoyed the physical aspect of the job.
It was during her first live burn, in which she and other trainees conducted a search and rescue mission to pull dummies out of a burning building, that her talent shined through. Ramirez said she and her husband were approached by a fire captain at the department after the mission, who pushed her to follow through with firefighting as a career.
“He was just so encouraging and so inviting,” Ramirez said. “He was not this macho guy that was putting up brick walls, he was building bridges.”
After years of training, Ramirez received a call in August 1993 from Fred Postel – the West Sacramento Fire Department fire chief at the time – who told her that she had been hired as a firefighter for the department. He told her they had made the decision because she was the most qualified person they had interviewed for the job.
“Now I realize why he said that,” Ramirez said. “He was just trying to make sure that I understood that I wasn’t hired because I was a woman. I was being hired because I was a qualified firefighter who had done well in the process.”
Ramirez was one of the roughly 6,200 women who were hired as firefighters across the country that year, making up a mere 3.3 percent of the firefighting workforce, according to data by the National Fire Protection Association.
Last year’s data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show little change, with women making up 3.5 percent of firefighters nationally.
The profession also sees low numbers for firefighters in minority racial groups. Only 6.8 percent of the workforce was African American, 1.4 percent was Asian and 7.7 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2016, the same data show. No figures were available for women or minorities in supervising roles within the firefighting profession.
Ramirez said the issue wasn’t that women weren’t able to get hired but rather that not enough women were applying to the job.
“That’s where the issue lies, I believe,” Ramirez said. “Inspiring young women, in an early age, as early as elementary school and junior high, to see that this is an opportunity for them.”
The West Sacramento Fire Department offers a Youth Fire Academy program, which recruits a diverse group of high school students and puts them through a comprehensive weeklong program that outlines the steps needed to begin their career as firefighters. The teens later follow up with staff, joining firefighters as they head to real-life calls.
Ramirez said she also serves as a mentor for a group of local young women who are interested in pursuing firefighting as a career.
She was a dynamic leader as she went through the different ranks in the department, and she never hesitated to take on a challenge. Our department is prepared for her to leave, but it’s still a huge hit.
West Sacramento Fire Chief John Heilmann
“I think we need to take the blinders off of young women and say these things are all possible,” she said.
Tracey Hansen, who became one of the region’s first female fire chiefs when she accepted the title for the Cosumnes Community Services District in 2010, said Ramirez’s strong communication skills and experience on the job will ease her transition into her new role. Hansen, who has known Ramirez as a colleague for two decades, is scheduled to retire at the end of June.
Ramirez said she had never considered leaving the West Sacramento Fire Department and applied for the post only after persistent encouragement from friends.
“Just slowly, it became clear that it was really going to be a great path,” she said.
Ramirez doesn’t anticipate any drastic changes during her first few months in the fire house.
“I plan to go around and listen to the employees, the firefighters that are there,” Ramirez said. “Most of it has to do with evaluating and assessing to be sure of the direction we are going to into the future.”
Editor’s note: This post was changed at 10:55 a.m. Feb. 26, 2017 to remove a reference that Ramirez will be the second woman in the region to be fire chief and to clarify that Tracey Hansen became one of the region’s first female chiefs when she took over at Cosumnes Community Services District in 2010 .