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|Last Updated: Monday, November 05, 2012|
Pioneering Los Angeles Fire Captain Cynthia Barbee Retires
Fire Captain Cynthia (Fralick) Barbee, the Los Angeles County Fire Department's first female firefighter whose story was depicted in the 1986 made for television movie Firefighter starring Nancy McKeon, retired on August 17 after 27 years of service. Barbee made headlines in 1983 when she graduated from the training Tower, affectionately known to our firefighters as the "grinder," with flying colors, breaking the gender barrier and opening the door for other women to follow.
Barbee's inspiration for becoming a firefighter was sparked when she participated in an EMT class as part of her job duties as a parking enforcement officer with the UCLA Police Department. She had just graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in Kinesiology, and paramedic work seemed the perfect fit for her background in physical science and interest in helping people. Barbee applied at several different fire departments before getting the opportunity to test with LACoFD. She passed the written, oral and physical exams and soon found herself as part of the 62nd Recruit Class. The military-like training was tough, but Barbee knew her athleticism and experience in competitive sports would serve her well.
"In 1978, I helped my UCLA softball team win their first National Championship, so I came on the job knowing I was physically capable.," she said. "I didn't come in with a chip on my shoulder, thinking the men had a physical advantage. I knew I was in at least as good condition as any guy my size." In the end she attained very good scores on the agility test, successfully completed the Tower, and received positive feedback in her exit interview from then Training Captain Vic Ramirez, who told her, "You did very well, and our Department has to realize that we are the ones that need to change how we view women in the fire service, because more will follow you."
Barbee's first assignment was at Fire Station 115, and a year later she enrolled in paramedic school. In fact, it was her graduation as a paramedic that prompted actress Nancy McKeon to executive co-produce and star in a television movie based on Barbee's experiences. "Nancy and her agent saw a picture of me with a giant smile on my face and read the article about me in a newspaper, and they thought there must be a story here," Barbee recalls. She was interviewed for the script, and even flown out to the filming in Vancouver. She credits the movie with opening people's minds at the time to the idea of women being in the fire service.
Following her paramedic certification, Barbee was assigned to Fire Station 20 in Norwalk where she met her husband, Alan. It was also at 20's where she promoted to Engineer. Over the following years, she had virtual tour of assignments throughout the County, including notoriously busy Fire Station 14, the quieter but no less challenging Fire Station 2 ("plenty of over-the-side rescues!"), the Public Information Office at headquarters, Area 7 Fire Prevention, and in 1996 promoted to the rank of Fire Captain. Her last assignment was at Fire Station 17 in Whittier, where she grew up. She enjoyed going out into the community and getting to know the residents of the areas she served, and greatly appreciated the female-friendly restroom/locker facilities at Fire Station 39 and 17's. She hopes more accessible facilities like these will continue to spread to other stations in our Department, as such a basic necessity has a huge impact on the health, well-being, and productivity of our 33 female firefighters.
Retired Captain Barbee's advice to other firefighters is to "take a step back and look at your cherished career of being a Los Angeles County firefighter in the United States of America; then look at other people in the world and at their position in life; you will have to conclude that no matter what else is happening in your life you are truly blessed by God. Always strive to deserve this job by your actions and words in public and in private."
Photo provided by Cynthia Barbee
Republished with the permission of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Author:Los Angeles County Fire Department
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