In August 1987, Shelia Hunter was one of the first seven women hired into the San Francisco Fire Department. Now, thirty years later, she still serves -- as a Lieutenant at Station 33 in Oceanview. Photographed by Christie Hemm Klok for a new series and self-published book called The Women of SFFD, Hunter sits on a wooden bench in full gear, elbows resting on her thighs, helmet at her side. She looks strong, experienced and ready.
For Hemm Klok, who photographed as many of San Francisco's female firefighters as she could over the past year (including a giant group portrait at Crissy Field), the series was both a labor of love and a professional challenge.
“A lot of times I would show up to a firehouse and we’d get to know each other and find places to shoot -- and they’d get called away,” Hemm Klok says. “There were a number of times when I was just left in a firehouse with my gear.”
Before she started the project, Hemm Klok had no personal relationship to the fire department, let alone female firefighters. As a freelance photographer in the Bay Area, she gets a lot of work photographing start-up founders in their sleek, open-air offices. “I shoot mostly tech and I do generally like it and like what I do, but I needed something else, you know? As fulfilling as tech can be, I needed something to be passionate about and reignite the fire,” she says, no pun intended.
She contacted United Fire Service Women (an organization founded to help women enter the SFFD) with her idea and heard back from them immediately -- it turned out they were preparing to celebrate their 30-year anniversary in the department. They'd just started looking for a photographer to document their members.
According to UFSW, the SFFD has one of the largest populations of female firefighters in the country. Women currently comprise about 15.3 percent (229 individuals) of the uniformed members of the SFFD. By extreme comparison, in 2016 the New York City Fire Department had 52 women on a force of roughly 10,500 -- about 0.5 percent -- making it among the least gender diverse fire departments in the nation.