The wayward motorist was surprised to encounter a female officer. The tactic did not work.
Then there was the man who argued with her over a speeding ticket, saying women “should be home home washing their husband’s socks.”
“It was so unusual. The people didn’t know how to react to me,” Firlein, 47, recalled. They didn’t know how to address me.”
With two college degrees behind her, Firlein at 30 became a pioneer.
Among the first group of women admitted to the CHP in 1974, Firlein and the others had to prove they could keep up with the men. They had to endure the same physical hardships as the men. They had to jump as high as the men, run as long as the men did and learn karate just like they did.
“There’s no question about it, Vivien was part of a very select group of women that was making history.” Retired CHP Commander Walt Padinski.
“There’s no question about it, Vivien was part of a very select group of women that was making history,” said Walt Padinski, former CHP commander who gave Firlein her first badge in 1974.
Padinski said the CHP led the nation in hiring women as patrol officers.
After nearly 20 years with the agency, mostly in Ontario, Firlein is retiring. A neck injury incurred in 1981 that was exacerbated by two other medical problems last year has forced her to step down.
She will be honored by her fellow officers Nov. 1 at a dinner at the Ontario Elks Lodge.
One of 41 women admitted to the CHP academy and 38 who successfully completed the training, Firlein was among the few who paved the way for other women choosing law enforcement as a career, Padinski said.
It was not easy in the beginning, Firlein said, who noted that despite the first batch of female recruits’ ability to handle the job, male officers were a bit wary of the idea in the beginning. Others, like the wayward motorist, did not know what to make of women in uniform.
Jailers would ignore her, preferring instead to talk to her male partner. They were very uncomfortable,” she said.
Capt. Mary Harrison, who graduated from the academy with Firlein and is today the highest ranking uniformed woman within the statewide agency, said the biggest obstacle was keeping up with the men physically.
Harrison, who is stationed in Sacramento, said Firlein was instrumental in implementing programs to combat drunk driving.
“She was a great asset, has a bubbly personality. She was good for the department,” Harrison said. “It’ll be hard to find someone to fill her shoes.”
Firlein, who holds a bachelor’s in English from UCLA and a master’s in English from Cal State Long Beach, entered the academy after her then husband, also with the CHP, gave her an application. The program was implemented in response to a lawsuit charging the department did not hire women as patrol officers.
She has been the public affairs officer for the Ontario CHP office since 1987. The year before, she developed a drunken driving program known as RIDE that incorporated officers from surrounding police departments in attacking the problem of intoxicated drivers.
In 1988 Firlein developed one of Southern California’s first designated driver programs, an approach to anti-drunken driving efforts that has since expanded throughout the region.
She and her current husband, Frank Firlein, also a retired CHP officer, plan to travel in their motor home. She also started a typesetting business with another woman, a venture she said has been profitable.
Nearly 20 years later, Firlein said, women have arrived in law enforcement. “The level of acceptance for women is there.”