She was the only woman in her firefighter class of 300 in 1999, and three years later she was there alongside her male counterparts, searching through the rubble at Ground Zero on 9/11.
Now Regina Wilson vows to change the perception of FDNY jobs as being just for men. As the first woman elected president of the Vulcan Society, a fraternal firefighter association composed of African-American FDNY members, the Brooklyn resident is in a position to do just that.
Wilson, who was sworn in on Jan. 19, said the presence of women at Ground Zero is not generally acknowledged -- an example of how the work of female firefighters is sometimes overlooked.
"We always see images showing the brotherhood of our white male firefighters. But there were a lot of women out there and not only women firefighters, but also female construction workers and emergency service responders. We all contributed to the recovery, but we were disregarded. It was disturbing, but I had to work and I did," Wilson said.
The Vulcan Society was the first firefighter association to support women in the fire department, said Wilson, who previously served as treasurer.
Founded in 1940, the Vulcan Society was organized by 40 black firefighters who wanted to end segregation in the FDNY. The fraternal order, which has 210 members, last year reached a settlement with the FDNY to recruit more women and minorities after a Brooklyn federal judge found a "pattern, practice, and policy of intentional discrimination against black applicants that has deep historical antecedents and uniquely disabling effects."
Wilson, 45, an FDNY academy instructor on engine operations assigned to Engine 219 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said recruitment efforts at job fairs and schools must be stepped up. Support services to help candidates pass the physical and written exams are needed along with mentorship to retain those who make it into the department, she said.
"We are looking for women who are not afraid to sweat," she said.
Wilson wants to meet with community boards and nonprofit groups such as Girls Inc. She has been inviting teenage girls to visit city firehouses to expose them to a career they might not otherwise consider.
"We want to be more visible," she said.
Wilson herself said that as a young woman she never considered becoming a firefighter. She was an office worker in the pension funds department at the former Brooklyn Gas Company when she attended the New York Black Expo, a yearly job fair at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.
She said two recruiters persuaded her to apply with the FDNY. "They kept telling me how everybody ... [in the FDNY] loved their jobs and I hated my job," said Wilson, a past former president of the United Women Firefighters.
Brenda Berkman, one of the first women to join the FDNY in 1982, helped train Wilson. "I've seen her develop as a leader. She is an excellent firefighter and has always volunteered to lend a helping hand to serve and mentor," said Berkman, who is retired.
Electing a woman president of the Vulcan Society is a natural progression, said John Coombs, Wilson's predecessor as president. "We were the first organization to support women in the fire department."
Coombs said he feels the tide may be shifting to hire more women and minorities. "We are having realistic conversations with this administration and now we have to see action. I'm very optimistic."