The Leadership Series: Cynthia Barbee – First Female Firefighter

By December 9, 2016LACoFD News
Cindy at Tower

by Battalion Chief Mitch Brookhyser

Adversity comes in many forms; the status quo, peer pressure, institutional culture and personal bias are just a few. Cynthia “Cindy” Barbee faced all these issues throughout her life and career. She consistently demonstrated the courage to overcome. She was the first female firefighter in the history of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, and she served as a leader during a critical time of transformation in the fire service.  

Born Cynthia A. Oeh on Aug. 17, 1955, Cindy graduated from Whittier Union High School in 1973. In school, she was an avid athlete, earning letters in tennis, softball, track, swimming, basketball and volleyball.

“Pursuing firefighting as a career really had its roots in my success as an athlete,” Cindy said. “In school, my main competitors were the boys; some I beat and some I didn’t. I was always one of the first to be picked on the team, and I always played to win.”  

After receiving an associate’s degree from Rio Hondo Community College in 1976, Cindy transferred to UCLA in 1977. In 1979, she married Lance A. Fralick, an outside linebacker for the Los the Angeles Rams. Their marriage ended in 1985.  

Cindy (kneeling, second from left) was the only walk-on player to earn a spot on the UCLA women’s softball team that went on to win the 1980 World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

Cindy (kneeling, second from left) was the only walk-on player to earn a spot on the UCLA women’s softball team that went on to win the 1980 World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

Cindy earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology in 1980. After graduating, she stayed on campus to serve as a parking enforcement officer for the UCLA Police Department. One morning on the way to work, she came upon a serious traffic accident.

“I had a degree in kinesiology but didn’t know how to help the victims medically,” Cindy recalled.

That night, she enrolled in an emergency medical technician course offered through the police department. This introduced her to the fire service and sparked her interest in a firefighting career.

In 1982, Cindy filled out employment interest cards with fire agencies across California. L.A. County was the first department to respond. At the time, the L.A. County selection process included an application, written exam, oral interview, six-event physical agility test, background investigation and thorough medical exam. Once a candidate passed this vetting, they were offered a spot in a rigorous 10-week training academy.

“I knew what the physical tests were, and I prepared for them by working with weights and a team trainer at the UCLA Team Athletic Facility,” she explained. “I would simulate picking up hose sections and placing them on a rack. I would pick up a 45-pound plate, then step up onto a bench, raise it up and down over my head, then step down. I would work with more weight than the actual hose section. I tried to train well beyond what was required.”

When she applied in 1982, she was one of 6,000 applicants for 200 available positions. Cindy passed all pre-screening and entered the 62nd Recruit Class on Feb. 12, 1983. She was 27 years old.

Welcome to the Fire Department

Battalion Chief Ron Jones, who was the training chief at the time, informed the training captains that the Fire Department’s first woman was part of the 62nd Recruit Class, according to Cindy’s husband Alan Barbee, a retired L.A. County fire captain.

Cindy with Fire Chief Clyde A. Bragdon, April 22, 1983.

Cindy with Fire Chief Clyde A. Bragdon, April 22, 1983.

“I think it was Captain Vic Ramirez who went up to Chief Jones and said that he would not be forced to accommodate a female in any way differently than the other male recruits,” Barbee said. “(Ramirez) said, ‘If you do, I will walk off this hill’ … The cadre made it clear, Cindy (as a female) would not be given any breaks. She would get nothing special.”  

“I didn’t want it any other way,” Cindy said. “Throughout high school and college, I was on several winning teams and often played in key positions. My biggest advantage in becoming a (female) firefighter was that I didn’t wear a chip on my shoulder when it came to competing with men. I felt very confident that pound-for-pound I could compete with the best of them.”

After graduating from the recruit academy on April 22, 1983, Cindy’s first assignment was at Fire Station 115 in Norwalk. At the time, dormitories and bathrooms in all L.A. County fire stations were designed exclusively for men. Cindy’s presence required the Fire Department to address the first facility accommodations for females.

“We would all take our turn using the bathroom, us three men together, then Cindy separately,” said Fire Captain Cliff Ritter, Cindy’s first captain. “Although all four members of the shift slept in the same dormitory, we wore gym shorts and T-shirts, so there was no embarrassment.”

Only a lock on the bathroom door and a reversible sign marked women and men differentiated Fire Station 115 from other fire stations in the county at the time. 

Cindy gets to know new colleague Fire Fighter John Ambrogio during her first day at Fire Station 115 in Norwalk. Photo by Olga Sahlygin/Press-Telegram.

Cindy gets to know new colleague Fire Fighter John Ambrogio during her first day at Fire Station 115 in Norwalk. Photo by Olga Sahlygin/Press-Telegram.

Cindy noticed subtle cultural changes in station behavior. “Men changed a little when I came into a room. They tended to talk differently, more guarded – when in mixed company. I didn’t make them do it. It’s something they imposed upon themselves. As they became more familiar with me, they loosened up. What really mattered to me was competing at an equal level with the men and completing my probation successfully. I didn’t want anyone to say I was given a break.”

Being the first female, Cindy was subject to all kinds of station house razzing.  She admitted, “The vast majority of it was good-natured, very creative. I enjoyed participating in the bantering back and forth.” However, getting the proper fitting uniforms proved challenging for the 5-foot, 8-inch firefighter who made do with the old Trans-Con men’s size 32 pants, which had to be taken in at the waist, so they would fit.

In September 1983, Cindy was transferred to her second probationary assignment at Station 12 in Altadena. The biggest hurdle Cindy faced there was learning to drive a fire engine. She successfully completed probation in February 1984.

From Firefighter to Engineer

After Cindy completed probation, she entered the paramedic training program, and successfully completed it in October 1984.  She was not only L.A. County’s first female firefighter, but now its first female paramedic.

Graduating from paramedic training, Cindy was featured in the Herald Examiner that later inspired the TV movie “Firefighter” starring Nancy McKeon. It highlighted Cindy’s accomplishment as the first female LA County firefighter, October 1984. Photo by Javier Mendoza/Herald Examiner.

Graduating from paramedic training, Cindy was featured in the Herald Examiner that later inspired the TV movie “Firefighter” starring Nancy McKeon. It highlighted Cindy’s accomplishment as the first female LA County firefighter, October 1984. Photo by Javier Mendoza/Herald Examiner.

Her accomplishment was featured in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and garnered the attention of an executive producer and Emmy-award winning screenwriter. CBS even gave the green light to produce a made-for-television movie based on Cindy’s professional journey. The “Firefighter” aired Sept. 23, 1986 as the CBS Tuesday Night Movie. The attention Cindy was receiving locally became a national example of the transformation taking place in traditionally male-dominated professions.

After certifying as a paramedic, Cindy was assigned to Squad 20 in Norwalk. While working at Station 20, she began preparing for the engineer’s exam. She also met and eventually married Fire Captain Alan Barbee.

“The engineer’s exam involved a written test and four practical exercises. In 1986, all candidates were skill-tested on apparatus having standard transmissions. Responding code-3 in these old fire apparatus was truly an art,” Cindy recalled. “I practiced constantly on perfecting my precision driving, hydraulics, pumping and studying for the written exam while still working as a paramedic.”

Her hard work paid off. Cindy was promoted on Dec. 1, 1986, and assigned to Station 98 in Bellflower. She had just over three-and-a-half years on the job.

Grooming Standards for Men & Women

After Cindy joined the Department, more women successfully completed the hiring process, leading the Department to focus on changing its facilities and cultural norms.

Cindy played a significant role in bringing a panel of Department administrators and Local 1014 leadership together on standards of grooming.

By default, the grooming standards for men became the grooming standards for women, too. When she joined the Department, Cindy was required to cut her long hair to an overall length of not more than two inches and remove her pierced earrings.

With Fire Chief John Englund, Cindy received her FFS badge, Dec. 1, 1986.

With Fire Chief John Englund, Cindy received her FFS badge, Dec. 1, 1986.

Cindy proclaimed to the panel, “In the United States, there are socially accepted grooming standards for both men and women, and they are different.”

Cindy recalled, “I think the turning point in my presentation on separate grooming standards was when I gave the example of going on a prevention inspection and having a business owner look at our crew (including me) and say ‘Hello, gentlemen.’ Then moments later, apologizing for the mistake after getting a closer look at me… I asked this panel of chiefs and union representatives to imagine being hired as men by the Department and being so proud to be firefighters, then (be) required to conform to a female grooming standard and be constantly addressed as ma’am or miss when in public.”

“You probably wouldn’t feel all that proud anymore,” she continued. “It doesn’t present our Department well to require men to look like women, nor does it work well for women to look like men.” Cindy’s efforts, along with the support of many others, resulted in modifying and adopting new grooming standards for both men and women by the mid-1990s.

She went on to serve as a fire prevention inspector, public information officer, Explorer advisor, yearbook staffer, fire museum committee member, physical fitness committee member, Los Angeles County Woman of the Year in 2000, and mentor to many others. She promoted to fire captain in 1996. Throughout the remainder of her career, she offered herself as an example to others, promoting fitness, professionalism and the possibilities for women in the fire service.  

Alan and Cindy Barbee at her 1996 promotion to captain.

Alan and Cindy Barbee at her 1996 promotion to captain.

Cindy’s courage and positive attitude won over many more people than she may ever know. She represented a catalyst of change that still resonates in the Department today.            

As Cindy’s career came to a close, she chose Station 17 in Whittier as her final assignment. This had been the closest LA County station to her childhood home. Cindy served the Fire Department for over 27 years before retiring on Aug. 17, 2010.

Today, Cindy and Alan Barbee split their time between homes in Dana Point and Westcliffe, Colorado. ­­­­­­