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Trial by Fire

Nine years ago, Caroline Paul set out to write an exposé on sexism and racism in the San Francisco Fire Department. So how did she end up becoming a firefighter?

Photo: Rex Rystedt

FACING DANGER: Paul recounts her adventures and struggles in a recent book.

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By Cate Corcoran

As a girl, Caroline Paul was a star swimmer who defended her younger brother against bullies. As a teen, she tried to set a Guinness world record for crawling, giving up after covering 8½ miles on her hands and knees in the rain. As an adult, she’s worked as a whitewater raft guide, competed on the U.S. national luge team, acquired her pilot’s license and tried bungee jumping, hang gliding, paragliding, sea kayaking and glacial skiing.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Paul now finds herself nine years into a career as a San Francisco firefighter, assigned to a unit that specializes in difficult rescues. "It was another adventure I could do -- and get paid for," she says simply.

But it’s not that simple. Paul, ’86, isn’t exactly the firefighter type. Raised in a prototypical wasp family in Connecticut (her father was an investment banker, her mother a social worker), openly lesbian and the twin sister of a former Baywatch babe, Paul had planned to become a documentary filmmaker or perhaps a journalist. Pulling victims out of collapsed tunnels, charging into burning buildings and fishing distressed boaters out of the Bay were not part of the plan.

It was while working as a reporter at Berkeley public radio station kpfa in 1988 that Paul decided to take an entrance exam at the San Francisco Fire Department. It had a reputation as sexist and racist, and she hoped to produce an exposé. But she detected no bias in the test, dropped the story -- and ended up joining the department. Now she has written a book about her experience, Fighting Fire: A Personal Story. In it, she describes how the old-guard institution she set out to change instead changed her.

With sirens still wailing, the red engine jerks to a stop at an angle to the curb. Paul and the other firefighters pile out, scrambling to be the first in the building, the most coveted -- and dangerous -- position. They could step through a floor, or open the wrong door and ignite an explosion. Paul gets her gloves on first and grabs the nozzle from a guy still pulling his gear on. "No gloves?" she says with a glint in her eye before turning to hustle into the burning building first.

Inside, the air is thick and hot, "a cloying, leaden heat" that makes Paul feel "that the very walls are moving inward." Even with a flashlight, the smoke is impenetrable, though she knows somewhere behind her there is an unseen firefighter feeding out the hose. Inside her air mask, she allows herself a grim smile. She loves the danger, the excitement, the adventure. Later, after the blaze is out, she learns that the fire got between her and her exit -- dangerous, since she could have become trapped. She is safe, but another firefighter, who was not so lucky, fell through the roof.

From childhood, Paul envied "men’s" adventures, says her mother, Sarah Paul. "She always wanted to be able to do those things." The young Caroline was stoic and determined -- even when her risky undertakings went awry. Her mother and father recall the Christmas when all three Paul children received sleds as presents. Caroline was 6. "She had to go right out on the hill behind our place and try hers out," says her father, Mark Paul. "She didn’t realize until she’d started down the hill that it was solid ice." She crashed into a fence at the bottom and ended up with a half-dozen stitches. But she never cried. "I winced every time the doctor took a stitch, and she never blanched," her father recalls.

As a teenager, Paul had her own way of testing limits. At 15, she decided to set the world record for crawling. It started to rain, and the judge made her stop because her knees were bleeding from rubbing against her wet jeans. Afterward, she tried to talk Guinness officials into creating a separate category for women (she’d covered 8 1/2 miles, the male record holder had crawled 11). When that didn’t work, she considered suing. It took several of her father’s lawyer friends to talk her out of it. As a boarding school student, she pushed administrators to upgrade the girls’ athletic facilities. "The headmistress of the school admired her very much for her tenacity," her mother says.

She carried this toughness and strength into adulthood. She risked jail to defend her brother, Jonathan. He was locked up for six months for refusing to testify to a grand jury about a case in which he had played no part. As they took him away, Caroline stood up in court and shouted, "You can’t arrest him because he hasn’t done anything!" The judge said "Arrest that woman," and it took three bailiffs to wrestle her to the ground.

These days, Paul has found a measure of contentment. She has repaired a rocky relationship with her mother and feels lucky to have a nice house, lots of friends and a job she loves. During an interview at her cozy Potrero Hill cottage, decorated with friends’ oil paintings of surfers and California landscapes, Paul exudes strength. Her handshake is firm, her shoulders broad. Tall and striking, she wears bold, dramatic jewelry -- a gold chain, a silver cuff -- and a glen-plaid suit jacket over frayed jeans. She is barefoot and relaxed.

She could not have imagined this life 10 years ago. Back then, still not sure she wanted to be a firefighter, Paul started to prepare for the physical portion of the entrance exam and for the rigors of the job. Firefighters wear 30 pounds of gear and carry 60-pound hoses, so she trained by running up San Francisco’s steep, stepped sidewalks carrying luggage crammed with weights or two bags of Cat Chow in either hand.

During training, some male recruits were unnerved by having to balance high above the ground on unstable ladders and sloping roofs. But it didn’t faze Paul. "The physical dangers weren’t that new," she says. "They were cool." What did terrify her was having to take her turn preparing meals for the other firefighters. "I can’t cook," she writes in Fighting Fire. "I eat only things that are unwrapped, unpeeled or untied." Her meals were watery, gray messes of vegetables and canned sauces. (An animal lover, Paul doesn’t eat meat.)

But she adored her work. She was surprised to find that firefighters don’t respond just to fires but also to lockouts, medical emergencies, bizarre accidents and the much-dreaded "well-being checks." When a person hasn’t been spotted by neighbors in weeks, it is firefighters who go to the scene. Paul tells the story of one such call: they found a long-dead man covered in mold, his face caved in and teeming with maggots. One stove burner was still flaming -- "looking over its long-gone owner like a small halo."

In the book, Paul describes the range of duties a firefighter faces. She tries to save an elderly woman whose oxygen supply was cut off in a nursing home, helps resuscitate a drug addict who has overdosed, cuts off a ring that has become stuck on a man’s penis and rescues a woman lying unscathed under a subway car next to the deadly third rail.

Besides the adventure and pathos of firefighting, the book tells the story of women and minorities making their way into the all-male, mostly white department. When Paul joined in 1989, only six out of 1,500 firefighters were women. Nine years later, there are 146 women out of 1,560 members of the force, and many are college graduates. The department is now a "good mix of men, women, blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, and ‘other,’ " Paul writes. Her example has inspired at least one other woman to become a firefighter. Her girlfriend, Trish Lee, ’85, joined the department in March and is now in her "probie," or training, years while continuing to practice law on the side. "I saw Caroline’s adventures and her lifestyle," Lee says. It seemed like a great gig."

The integration of the fire department was not always graceful or smooth, and Paul doesn’t sugarcoat the ugliness she encountered. At first she stood out, both as a woman and a college kid. "The Stanford grad," comments one firefighter the first time Paul enters the stationhouse kitchen. "The vegetarian," says another. There were other unpleasant encounters with hostile male colleagues. One cooks her an all-meat dinner. Another won’t let her past the front door of his firehouse to post a notice on a bulletin board. (The fact that she is gay was never a problem. If anything, she says, the other firefighters expected it.)

But she is loath to condemn the department. In fact, she praises administrators for quickly embracing change. Most individual firefighters are good people, Paul says, though as a group they can be clannish. "I found out that I was not that different from them," she says, adding that the same was perhaps true of her own friends. "I had a pretty homogenous life as well. I learned to be a lot more open-minded, a lot less judgmental."

The experience has helped Paul grow. She no longer believes that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. It’s become second nature to hold victims’ hands and comfort them. And she’s grown more aware of life’s fragility, how it can be snuffed out by tiny miscalculations of space or time. "You see kids die," she explains. "You see someone fall off a roof from a teeny little mistake."

When she began her firefighting career, Paul never expected to get a book out of it. But she took to writing letters to friends and family to "process" her experience. Eventually, she realized, she had enough good material for a book. Most of the chapters were written on her laptop at Farley’s Café, a neighborhood hangout. Reviewers have praised Paul’s insight and elegant, sometimes lyrical writing. "By the end of Fighting Fire, the deep roar and shrill siren of a passing fire truck will evoke much more for readers than the obligation to get out of the way," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle critic. She had help and advice from fellow writers Jim Paul (no relation), a 1984-85 Stegner fellow in poetry, novelist Po Bronson, ’86, and others.

Because of her twin sister’s celebrity, strangers used to stop Paul after water rescues to ask if she was filming an episode of Baywatch. But since her book came out, the real-life rescuer has gained a measure of fame herself. She and twin sister Alexandra (who left the TV show after a five-year run in 1996) appeared in People magazine’s "50 most beautiful people" issue last spring. Paul’s was the first face on the cover of the splashy new incarnation of Reader’s Digest, the world’s largest-circulation magazine. She toured the United States, was interviewed on Rosie O’Donnell’s TV talk show and was featured in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Though the book never cracked the bestseller list, St. Martin’s Press plans to release it as a paperback next year.

On the job, Paul still tries to maintain a low profile and won’t allow reporters to interview her at work. She says, however, that most of the firefighters at her own station have asked her to autograph a copy of the book "when no one else is around." She’s received hundreds of letters from around the country, almost all favorable. Most are from older, white firefighters who thank her for her even-handed portrayal of the job. They say, "Now my wife understands what I do," or -- this is a high compliment, Paul says -- "Thank you, brother" or "Be safe, brother."

Safety is, of course, important to Paul. But so is adventure. "People who do physically daring things are making an effort to feel more," she says. "I think we just try to live at a higher volume." For Paul, actions have always spoken louder than words.

Cate T. Corcoran is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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