Sarinya Srisakul’s day job is saving lives. Straight up. As the New York Fire Department’s first ever Asian American female firefighter, Srisakul spends her working hours fighting blazes, responding to Emergency Medical Services calls, and solving whatever other disasters NYC throws her way. But her side hustle is just as heroic. When she’s not at the NYFD, Srisakul serves as the president of the United Women Firefighters (UWF), making it her life’s mission to get more women in yellow. At the UWF she helps women physically train to take the firefighters exam and, for those who make it, hosts mental health workshops and offers a safe space to discuss discrimination at work. Thanks to her efforts, the number of women in the NYFD has more than doubled—from 37 in 2013 to 68 today.
FWith a giant fire heart tattoo emblazoned across her chest, Srisakul, 37, lives and breathes her job. But as a former art-school student, she never could have imagined this would be her career. Graphic design? Maybe. Fighting fires? Nah. It wasn’t until after 9/11, when a friend dragged her to an orientation, that she realized it might be her calling. Once she started the training—staffed by female firefighters—she was hooked. “They didn’t all look like Chyna the wrestler,” she says. “There were fat women, short women, skinny women. I realized, if they can do it, they’re no different than me. “
When Srisakul joined the NYFD in 2005, she was the only woman in her firehouse. Quickly she realized it was important to have more women in service, not only for the sake of sisterhood (only 7 percent of firefighters are female in the U.S.) but because of the kinds of work her job encompasses, like EMS calls—”it’s a woman naked, passed out, and they’ll send me in,” she says—or domestic violence cases, which can be brutal. Once she even found a woman with spinal fluid leaking out of her ear; unfortunately, it was too late to save her. But for those who it’s not too late for, it can be immensely comforting to see a woman’s face coming to rescue you. Yet above all, Srisakul just really wants women to experience the thrill of fighting fires. Like when she stands on a roof wielding a hose, blasting water into a nearby building that’s engulfed in flames. “Sometimes,” she says, “it’s like pissing into hell.”
Now Srisakul, still the only woman in her firehouse, has a new “first” to add to her list: She’s the first recipient of The Freedom Award, presented by Netflix and inspired by The Crown, as part of Glamour‘s 2017 Women of the Year event. The award is designed to be given to a woman for the modern age, paving the way and pushing boundaries toward a bright future for women, much like The Crown‘s Queen Elizabeth: A strong woman constantly pushing her country forward with her leadership, perseverance and unwavering strength in the face of changing times. Here she talks about what it’s like being a woman in the line of fire.