Just three. Three women stand among the more than 700 firefighters who work diligently for the city of Cleveland. 

It’s a grueling, dangerous job that takes dedication, perseverance and strength. Throughout their careers, Deberra Schroeder, Justina Saxby and Daphne Tyus have been up to the challenge, whether it came in the form of the training academy — an 18-week boot camp designed to test agility, muscle and skill — or the stereotypes and sexism they encountered along the way. 

In 1985, Schroeder and Saxby were among a class of 10 females hired due to an agreement that sprung out of a class-action lawsuit that alleged discrimination against women in the fire department 

“Back then, everything was based on speed,” says Saxby. “Obviously, the faster you did it, the better your score was going to be. And obviously, women can’t compete against men based on speed. So there weren’t a lot of women doing it.”

At its high point, only 13 women worked in the fire department at one time. So, it’s understandable that it was difficult to overcome the male dominance and skepticism. Schroeder, Saxby and Tyus each felt the effects. 

“You’re already in an environment that’s put upon you: ‘You can’t do what I do,’ ” says Tyus. “So you have to push three, four times harder. You have to make it happen with all that’s within you. And to our surprise, it happens.”

They’ve fought fires, rescued women, children and men, and risked their own lives. With a combined 94 years of service, these women have risen up through the ranks and held their own. But who will fill their boots?

The city hasn’t hired a female firefighter since 1989. So for now, it’s up to these three to ignite a passion in the next generation of strong women.

“I don’t want more females on the Cleveland fire department,” says Schroeder. “I want more females that want to be on the Cleveland fire department.

Deberra Schroeder, 62

Deberra Schroeder was named battalion chief in October 2016 — the first woman to hold that position in the department. With 32 years of service, Schroeder has shown she’s dedicated to the job and has an impressive resume to prove it. She started training to be a firefighter just four months after having her first child, before completing paramedic school and going on to receive her nursing degree. She’s also part of the department’s fire investigation unit and returned to Cleveland State University, where she received degrees in public safety management and geographic information services. 

The fact that we haven’t hired a woman since 1989 is really incredibly awful. As a male with a daughter, I would be upset. And other females out there, they should be upset.

There’s some kind of impression of what a firefighter looks like. He normally is tall, dark, handsome and belongs on a calendar.

There’s guys that retired just because they didn’t want to work with, for lack of another term, “the broads.”

For whatever reason, my 13-year-old brother ended up hanging himself at my boyfriend’s waterbed store. We were playing hide-and-seek. 

There was a small bathroom in there. We took the hinges off the door to surprise him, like, “Yeah, see? You couldn’t hide from us. We found you!” 

And when I opened up the door, he had hung himself. I got him down. That’s the first time I tried to do CPR on anybody.

That was a pivotal point where you want to try and make a difference.

Back in 1979, I took a scuba diving class. A Cleveland firefighter was one of the instructors. My breathing rate on the tank of air was really good. 

He knew I was a marathon runner. So he said, “You should try out for the test.”

You have to run stairs all the time if you’re training for the fire test. I had a backpack. I would put 70 pounds of sand in that backpack. And I would go to the parking lot at Edgewater Park and then climb up the hill, down the hill, up the hill, down the hill.

I had to get a note from my doctor saying that I could participate in physical agility after having a baby. 

At that point, I was doing pushups and situps and running right along with the men — if not beating them.

My children just always knew that I was a firefighter. There’s no reaction. Of course mommies can be firefighters. That’s just what they grew up with.

One of the worst days ever was Dec. 31, 1985. Dan Pescatrice died. He was a firefighter. He got lost in a warehouse. 

The fire, it was too bad. We couldn’t have people in there. They were sounding the mayday alarms and stuff like that.

There were so many guys that lost their best friend that day.

You never leave your loved ones without giving them a kiss and hug. I don’t care if you’re going to the bank or the grocery store — you have to say goodbye. 

They haven’t hired a woman since 1989. I’m trying not to be in a walker before they do that again. 

Daphne Tyus, 56

As one of three female firefighters in the city of Cleveland, Lt. Daphne Tyus is also the only black female firefighter. She serves in the fire education department teaching fire safety during events and festivals. She loves reaching out to the community, especially talking to students and seniors. With 30 years of service, she oversees two fire-safety trailers — mobile houses that simulate fire and give residents a chance to practice escape strategies. 

I never dreamed to be a firefighter — I had dreams of playing in the Cleveland Orchestra.

We would run steps. Pushups, squat thrusts, stretching — all those things.

You think you’re going to die. Your body recovers quickly. That’s the mentality they gave us: Don’t quit. You’re going to recover.

The first few years of my career were probably the worst ever.

I have been locked out of my room. I’ve been called out of my name while at a fire, called [derogatory names].

Some other firefighters still today tell me that somebody sabotaged my mask. I went into a fire with one firefighter, and I couldn’t go in because my mask wasn’t working.

[My co-worker] got back to the station and checked my mask. Someone had inverted my inhalation valve, turned it the wrong way.

He went into the office and talked to the guys and said, “I know you don’t like these women. I know you all are going to do some things. But do not mess with equipment!”

I kept to myself a lot, a great deal. That was a very daunting, fearful time.

My dad says, “Don’t leave when it’s bad. You got to get over the hurdle because something better’s coming.”

I was at Station 11 on Broadway Avenue when five children died in a fire. I was still just a few years on the job.

The children had died on the second floor. And my officer said, “Come on, Daphne, let’s go up the ladder and see it.” I’m like, “Why do you want me to see this?” He’s like, “You’ve got to see it.”

I got to the tip of the ladder, up to the windowsill. And I saw the hands and the arms of the five children laying on top of each other. You’re not looking at a body. 

I did not know that you could feel like that when somebody died in a fire. It messed us up. 

It exposed you to what your career is giving to you, so you can get immune to what you may see.

That gives you the urgency when you’re a firefighter. If it’s a fire and people are trapped, your adrenaline is going. We’ve got to get these people out of here! 

That’s one of the worst things, to see somebody die because of fire and smoke.

My favorite part of this job is just being able to get out of the office and go meet the people, talk to the children.

The children are so loving during fire education when they see a female firefighter. “A female firefighter? That’s a lady firefighter?”

I explain everything to them and they come up to me and just hug me.

 

Justina Saxby, 59

Lt. Justina Saxby has spent the majority of her 32-year career fighting fires. But after an accident in 2014 sidelined her, she started to learn the department’s timekeeping software. Today, she works at the department’s headquarters, where she manages the system for all 26 stations and works with assistant chiefs to ensure there are enough personnel for each shift.

I win a lot of bets because no one ever guesses what I do for a living.

I was pre-med. I was going part time,
supporting myself.

I was working as a racquetball pro at a private country club in Medina. I ran a little tumbling program there. 

One of the guys whose children I coached was a Cleveland firefighter. He told me, “Gosh, you’re such an athlete! We’re looking for women to get on the fire department.” 

I was making $9,000 a year, spending $30,000 a year on my education with no health insurance, no benefits. So, of course, I was really looking for a job.

We were the first women in the Cleveland fire department. So, of course, that’s groundbreaking. 

That’s such an attractive thing to be able to say.

During academy they said, “We want you to do situps until you can’t any more.” And I took third with more than 500.

The environment on the fire department was not good for women in the beginning. These guys, their thought process was that I took a job away from a guy trying to feed his family.

I remember having a little 6-year-old who got shot. She found a 9 mm gun and shot herself. 

I was the first on the scene, [because it was called in as a burn]. I can remember that having a huge impact on me emotionally for weeks after. 

My children —they were toddlers, too.

It was very difficult to be in that situation, where you were trying to hold in and check your emotions. 

You didn’t want to be labeled: “Oh, my God! She’s a big crybaby.”

That maternal instinct helped me on the job. It made me a better caregiver. I was a lot more open to believing the situation. 

I remember putting out a semi. I was in the cab of the truck, and the fire flared up all around me. 

I remember flying — I remember getting out of that truck before I even knew what happened. 

Burned my eyebrows off. Singed my nose.

Once we were practicing. I got hit with 200 pounds of water pressure. I got thrown 20 feet. I ended up shattering my wrist, breaking my elbow and messing up my hip.

My kids don’t want me to go back out on the street.

It never crossed my mind that maybe I should quit this job — that it’s too dangerous. No, that never crossed my mind. 

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