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Fighting Fire

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She fought the prejudice. She fought the stereotype. Then she fought the greatest force of all-- fire. When the San Francisco Fire Department broke their all-male rule to hire women, Caroline Paul never thought she'd be chosen. She had already enrolled in film school. And Caroline, a strikingly beautiful Stanford graduate, didn't fit anyone's idea of a fireman. Except her own. Even though she loved testing her limits on white water rivers or Alpine mountains, plunging into a flame-engulfed building would be different than anything she had ever done. Now, in hard-edged prose as crackling as a four-alarm fire, she tells her amazing story. From her fight to match her colleagues physically and mentally, to her silent determination to face her fears, she tells of infernos, heroism, and heartbreaking tragedy. And with a will forged by fire, she reveals one woman's realization of a dream burning in her soul.

272 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published January 1, 1998

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About the author

Caroline Paul

15 books99 followers
Caroline Paul is an American writer of fiction and nonfiction. Trained as a journalist and documentary filmmaker at Stanford University, she instead pursued a career as a firefighter, as one of the first women hired by the San Francisco Fire department. She worked most of her career on Rescue 2, where she and her crew were responsible for search and rescue in fires. Rescue 2 members were also trained and sent on scuba dive searches, rope and rapelling rescues, surf rescues, confined space rescues, all hazardous material calls, and the most severe train and car wrecks.

Source: Wikipedia.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 30 reviews
Profile Image for Liralen.
2,754 reviews161 followers
August 5, 2016
Fire taps something ancient and vital in each of us, something both snarling and reverential. Fire harkens back to our wilder selves, the parts we let out only when we think no one is looking. (69)

Rather like Zac Unger, Paul was an unlikely firefighter: from a white-collar background; educated at Stanford; in graduate school. Female. Like Unger, Paul came to firefighting by accident—in Unger's case, his mother persuaded him to apply; in Paul's case, she took on the application as something of a challenge. The San Francisco Fire Department had gotten a lot of bad press and (not unrelatedly) wasn't particularly welcoming to women or minorities. How, Paul asks, did an institution that stands for courage and self-sacrifice get such a terrible reputation? (55–56) And yet—in she went, and in she stayed, at least long enough to find her niche.

Unlike Unger, finding a niche didn't wipe away all of Paul's concerns. Oh, I liked Unger's book quite a lot; in both cases you have qualified, thoughtful writers who happen to be (or have been) firefighters, and that's worth a lot. But Paul is both less angsty about her place in it all and more critical, talking about second-guessing her instincts, for example, to hold the hand of a nursing home patient, because if a male firefighter did so it would be seen as kind but if a female firefighter did so it would be seen as weak.

Maybe Paul was never going to be satisfied with being solely a firefighter (or, for that matter, solely a filmmaker or solely a writer), but even if it was initially largely a score to settle (with herself? with sexism? with the people saying 'can't'?), well, she owned that challenge. Excellent book.

Random quotations that pleased me:

[Cooking] remains my least favorite part of the job, but I am no longer so anxious. I am still fairly useless, and stick to a painfully narrow list of tried-and-true meals. If I am particularly stressed, I have no qualms about taking shortcuts that [another firefighter] would find blasphemous. Instead of making sauces or salad dressings, I buy them. If I feel energetic, I may try to hide the cans or bottles. I pour the product into a bowl and place it on the counter as if it were my own. One day, with time running out before dinner, I took the thirteen heads of lettuce I needed for salad and, after running water over them, threw them into the washing machine.
They were spun dry in no time. The tart, tingly taste of fabric softener was only barely discernible. People do not expect much from my meals, so they did not mention it.

Of course, traditions die hard. I once found a hay fork in the bowels of Truck 53. The tiller operator shrugged when I held it up to him. He said it was used long ago when the horses were here (and as the last horses retired in 1921, it was a very long time ago). No one had bothered to remove it. "It's good for stuff," he said vaguely, and we put it back. Tradition is both the cornerstone and the lodestone of the San Francisco Fire Department. (223)

Original review written February 2016; edited to fix a typo August 2016.
Profile Image for Florence.
818 reviews10 followers
June 8, 2020
Caroline Paul was not the first woman firefighter is San Francisco but she joined the department when the "good old boys club" was still going strong. Some of her male colleagues shunned her, letting her know that she would never be accepted. Caroline shrugged and went on to develop lifesaving skills and eventually, respect. She tells an insider's story of what it is like to live in a firehouse, risk your life on a daily basis, rescue people from dire situations. She tells it with humor and pathos. She relates how gruesome sights become commonplace. In firehouse culture, not so gently ribbing relieves tension and keeps the horror at bay. Caroline Paul's story is highly personal. Her life was changed by her choice of a firefighting vocation. Mine was enriched by reading her story.
Profile Image for E Dittmar.
4 reviews
March 26, 2008
Oh my god, finally an incredible auto biography of an amazing female firefighter. This follows Caroline Paul's career as a firefighter and the prejudice and physical and emotional conflicts she faces joining the San Francisco Fire Department at a time when minorities joining was a disaster. Once a feminist siding with the press against the prejudice and racism and sexism of the San Francisco firefighters, she begins to see the other side of things after joining the department with flying colors and realising not everything the press and people have said about the department is not what it seems. I learned a great deal more from this book about a career I am seriously considering, and it has inspired me. Following Caroline through unbelievable fires and medicals and horrifying rescues is an incredible trip, and easy to follow through her more than fantastic writing ability. A treat for every girl woman, and interested guy to behold. A true, honest, and real life story about everyday heroes seen in the most unlikely people. Genre: nonfiction/auto biography.
Profile Image for Erica.
Author 2 books87 followers
March 26, 2014
A stay up all night because you can't sleep until you finish it book.
Profile Image for Tamara Evans.
812 reviews33 followers
December 13, 2021
"Fighting Fire" is the biography of Caroline Paul, one of the first dozen women to join the San Francisco Fire Department. Through her biography, the reader sees the transformation of the San Francisco Fire Department as an institution as well as the transformation of a young women from being is unsure of her place in the world into an adult who is confident and sure of herself.

The book consists of a preface, three sections: smoke, heat, and fire, then concludes with an epilogue. The first portion of the book focuses on the author's upbringing in New York City as the twin sister of a future famous actress (Alexandra Paul,) her college years and graduation from Stanford University, as well as her the events that lead her to join the San Francisco Fire Department despite its bad reputation as a racist and sexist institution.

In the second portion of the book, Paul provides a history of fire in San Francisco as well the events that led to the creation of the first city fire department. In this portion of the book, the author shares her experience attending the fire academy, being the first woman at a fire station house and the manner in which some fellow male firefighters embrace her being there while other firefighters are openly hostile towards her presence.

In the third portion on the book, the author has been in the fire department for over four years and feels that through her experienced as a firefighter, she is no longer an observer of life but a participant. By fighting fire and performing other types of rescue missions, these experiences help her to realize the importance of connecting with family on a regular basis as well as discovering her own ability to be brave when the situation calls for it.

The biography is an educational in the amount of information provide about the history of the San Francisco Fire Department, different types of firefighting equipment used, different types of fires, and different types of fire trucks that are used. In addition, this biography is an inspiring read since it provides a unique perspective on the experience of a women entering a male dominated profession in the 1980's. Although by the end of the book, there are 80 female firefighters in the San Francisco Fire Department, which is 5% of the department, at least the fire department as a institution is becoming more open to admitting woman and minorities into the profession. Lastly, this biography can give female readers hope that through tenacity and hard work, she is capable of entering any male dominated profession she chooses.
Profile Image for Einar Jensen.
Author 3 books8 followers
January 4, 2022
“But that is the way it is with a Fire Story. Everyone has one, and you never really know how it ends until you get there.” Those sentences from Caroline Paul excellent memoir Fighting Fire brought a slight tightness not to my heart chest, but to my soul chest. It was a poignant moment because I enjoyed reading her story from start to finish.

Paul started the book “as a story of an institution and the people who changed it.” She was a volunteer radio journalist when she joined the San Francisco Fire Department looking for a behind-the-scenes investigation into an agency better known for sexism and racism than emergency service. She, like many of us who serve as firefighters, was changed by the institution as she looked beyond the constructed facades, worked hard, and opened herself to growth. “But really, [the book] is about the way the institution and its struggles changed me.” That journey was a joy to read.

Paul was among the first women to transform SFFD’s firemen into firefighters. She shares many of the conflicts and obstacles she endured. I wonder whether those obstacles/conflicts remain not just in the SFFD but also in the agencies at which I have served or currently serve. They certainly exist in the rest of our 21st-century society and the fire service is but a slice of society. I know I can do more with my white male privilege to challenge that privilege’s robust grip and strive for a better reality. I love the fire service; I’m committed to leaving it better than I found it.

This book is excellent and a great way to begin a new year in books.
Profile Image for Lora Shouse.
Author 1 book28 followers
August 3, 2019
I enjoyed this book very much. It was interesting from beginning to end.

This is the story of Caroline Paul, one of the first dozen or so female firefighters in the San Francisco Fire Department. In it, she writes lyrically of both the practical and philosophical sides of fighting fire.

She tells how she applied to the fire department on the pretense of going undercover to get a story about their racial and sexual prejudice issues for the public radio station where she volunteered. To her own surprise, she passed the tests and was offered a place in the next training class. She was ambivalent, however. Her background was not compatible with her taking a blue-collar job, and she asks if she can think about it for a while. But after the earthquake of ’89, she decides to go ahead and join the training class and becomes a firefighter.

She describes the practicalities of fighting fires, the haunting fascination fire has for everybody and particularly firefighters and the nuances of racism and sexism she encountered on the job. She also describes other aspects of being a firefighter, such as the fact that medical calls have become as much of their job as fire calls (apparently San Francisco didn’t add ambulances to its fire stations until near the end of the period covered in this book, and the firefighters were uneasy with that – more change to deal with).

This was a library book.
Profile Image for Kristin.
985 reviews6 followers
November 19, 2018
An interesting look at the author's career in the San Francisco Fire Department as one of the first women to gain entry following efforts to increase diversity on the force. That said, she didn't have it any easier because of the new rules, if anything it garnered more animosity from the 'old guard' who didn't look favorable on welcoming females and minorities to their ranks. To Paul though, it wasn't so much about being a trendsetter, moreso it was the thrill of realizing a dream in such an esteemed department, and she made the most of it.
A lot of the stories were short recaps of the memorable calls she and her colleagues went on, plus life in the house between calls. The final story, which doesn't actually involve one of Paul's calls, but the major incident that occurred in the SFFD during her tenure, was the most intriguing, as it is that of a seemingly innocent house fire that took a tragic turn quickly. It kept me reading until the end of the book to find out what the aftermath was. Because these are based on real events, even though the names are all changed, I was able to find the actual new coverage of the fire and learn about the firefighters involved and what life has been like since the book was published.
Quick read, but easy to read in small pieces before bed, for example.
Profile Image for Shelvesof  Women.
37 reviews6 followers
November 11, 2022
Caroline was one of the first woman firefighters in San Francisco. She was also
- From a well off family
- A Stanford graduate
- Bisexual
- The identical twin sister of movie & tv star Alexandra Paul

...unlike the blue collar, mustached white men who made up 99% of the dept. SF’s fire department was then known for bigotry, racism and sexism. But thanks to newly changed laws, a handful of women got in in the mid-80s. Caroline was 2nd wave. She was grateful for this and thanks the earlier women for their tips and existence.

Her memoir, written in 1998, after 8 years of firefighting experience, balances between two narrative themes - the first: navigating largely blue collar men’s spaces. Her insights into gendered behavior are thoughtful. Her second theme is what it’s like to be a firefighter. The stories engulf you. The heat, the flames, the danger, the dead bodies....

Part of her job included rescues in a wet suit, which are the opposite of glamorous. Coincidentally her twin sister was filming water rescues in a red swimsuit as a big part of her starring role on Baywatch at the same time.

Reality vs Hollywood.

Highly recommended read for anyone interested in firefighting- but not little kids because dead bodies.
Profile Image for Toni.
Author 1 book47 followers
May 24, 2019
I used to live near a fire station in SF. I often wondered if there were any female firefighters in the house. In a handful of years, I never did see a one. Years later, I found out that my first college roommate had become a firefighter. I was interested in this book because, well, I generally think that women who fight fires for a living are pretty badass. Caroline Paul was one of the first to do it in SF. Fighting Fire tells the story of how Paul left her ivy-league educated, destined for white collar professionalism world to become a firefighter in SF. It's a truly interesting story and she tells it well. Some of the parts detailing the technical aspects of firefighting dragged a bit, but for the most part, the book was quite interesting, if not a bit difficult to stomach in parts. And, quite interesting was the way in which Paul and the other women had to navigate the complicated old boys network that was definitely not too keen on opening its doors to women. At the heart of the story is Paul's journey to overcome fear - battling fires, sexism, her own head...etc. All in all, a quick and interesting read.
82 reviews
March 2, 2021
An unusual way to pick your occupation yet Standford grad Caroline filled out a post card and was invited to apply for the Fire Department. Indeed she became a Firefighter yet not a childhood dream! I was amazed by her early point of view (not good) of her future teammates yet she hung in there for 14 years!
She did defend some of the firefighter ways, traditions, norms, etc. yet pointed out what should be and what should not be. I believe her working along side of these brave soles increased her knowledge and most importantly understanding of folks outside of her own comfort zone.

The best parts of this book were the actual situations author Caroline Paul encountered throughout her tenure as a firefighter. Much learning took place of the San Francisco neighborhoods and the challenge to save the many lives nearby. Enjoy as I did!
Profile Image for Monica Bulgari.
48 reviews1 follower
March 30, 2021
It is an interesting point of view that Caroline Paul brings. She does not spare any critics to the sexism of San Francisco FireFight Department and this is a reallu cool thing. The fire storiea as well the routine of a firefighter ia prett cool too. But the way the book is written has not got me much. In a way this is a book written but a woman who is a firefighter and that is it. Sometimes the langugage is so mundane it makes me think that the book was being written buy a man. This kind of disappointed me, I guess. Its difficult to say if this is an inspirational book.
68 reviews
January 18, 2021
It was good, wish some of the individual stories were explored in more detail.
190 reviews2 followers
April 25, 2021
I'm a fan of Caroline Paul and I like her style of writing. The book needed a little more content, but I liked it overall.
June 8, 2020
In 1986, Caroline Paul became the second wave of women allowed into the San Francisco Fire Department. Her memoir is very well written, her bravery and courage admirable, and I learned so much about fighting structural fires as well as the SFFD.
249 reviews4 followers
March 6, 2017
great read! it had its share of lull spots but it flowed well, and brought to light the fact that women should,be allowed to enter whatever profession they feel led to.
10 reviews1 follower
February 24, 2017
I thoroughly enjoyed this well written memoir by Caroline Paul, who as a Stanford graduate in the late 1980's pursued an unlikely career as a San Francisco firefighter. One of the first women admitted to the fire department, she battled long held prejudices with hard work and fearless dedication. Her poignant narrative frequently references the sentiments of a Dayak hunter to her years before: "why would you put yourself in harm's way?" She searches for the answer to this question as she rides with a rescue squad through the streets of San Francisco's Mission District among heroin addicts, prostitutes, and johns. Her story is both thoughtful and thought provoking. As she says herself "it is about the way the institution and its struggles changed me."
Profile Image for Cheryl.
1,520 reviews
December 21, 2010
Riveting throughout. Excellent memoir of self-possessed and strong-willed firefighter who joined the predominately male fire department in the aftermath of affirmative action. Acceptance by some, active harassment by others, her experiences are well detailed with a curious sense of detachment that added to the credibility.

In the chapter labeled "Firewomen", I was impressed with her assertation that the vilification of Elizabeth Mandel actually helped the other women who came after her. "She is so vilified that the rest of us gain by contrast. Once we are seen to be less defensive or combative than Elizabeth--and rumors about her took on such grotesque proportions that it was impossible to come even close--the firefighter is so relieved that he is friendlier than he might otherwise have been".

In a book full of interesting information and observations, the events surrounding Todd Lane could have been easily missed. For me, it was an important reminder that during times of change, people's first reactions, especially during such a difficult time, are not necessarily their ultimate opinions. That change is hard, especially when many felt that "the fire department was the best men's club in the world." and resented the change. That the power of a heartfelt apology can be immense and freeing to both the one who freely offers it and the one who was imprisoned in the anger and frustration. "Suddenly, from the Rescue desk, Todd Lane beckons me over. He hitches his pants and clears his throat. 'Listen,' he says, his voice low. "Is it too late, four years too late, to say I'm sorry?"

I definitely think this book is well worth reading and is one that I would have read with my daughters.
Profile Image for Sita.
167 reviews12 followers
February 25, 2008
I picked this because the cover looks interesting. A female firefighter? So I had to read it. Doesn't disappoint. It details the battery of tests you have to go through to be a fire fighter, what the job involves, how does it feel to put out your first fire and life at the station. She also tells about problems she encounters at work and how she dealt with it. Well written and very interesting. She's also the twin sister of Baywatch Captain. Not that anything to do with being a fire fighter ;)
Profile Image for Betsy Marsey.
114 reviews
May 10, 2011
After I finished the book, I can say it was a well written book. I guess the subject matter, women breaking through the male barrier in fire fighting, wasn't particularly calling me. But on reflection, Caroline Paul, does a great job describing why anybody would want to fight fire. What the characteristics of personality that are needed to want to risk one's life on an everyday basis. It was a good change of pace for me.
Profile Image for Scott.
1,745 reviews123 followers
November 23, 2016
An exceptional, thoughtful and entertaining memoir from an unlikely firefighter. The attitudes and actions of some of her male colleagues and citizens will occasionally inspire disgust. A must-read for any young lady (or anyone, really) considering a first responder position.
Profile Image for Dawn Mateo.
163 reviews3 followers
February 6, 2009
Such and amazing woman and author! I really enjoyed this book (and her other book: East Wind, Rain). It really gave an insight as to what women endured in the fire service.
Profile Image for E.
269 reviews1 follower
August 20, 2012
What a good book! Didn't want to put it down.
Profile Image for Debra.
795 reviews12 followers
May 13, 2013
True story of one of the first female firefighters in San Francisco--the challenges of doing a physically demanding job and the challenges of breaking into the boys club.
Profile Image for Rhode PVD.
2,341 reviews23 followers
January 1, 2015
I picked up this book because I went to high school with the author's sister, but it won its place in my library on its own merits.
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