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Real Life: Women in the Fire Service

03-20-12 -- By Ruth Obadal, Retired Fire Chief, Puyallup, Washington.

Women have been in the career fire service for well over 35 years now and in the volunteer service even longer. Those of us who have been involved for most of that time have seen many changes in recruitment, selection and training, and how women are welcomed, accepted and integrated into their fire departments. I spoke with four women from diverse backgrounds who are relatively new in their role, from two months out of recruit training to five years on the job.

I wanted to get their perspective on their new career as well as the words of wisdom they wish to share with other women who may be considering such a career. They are Megan Ellzy, Alexandria Fire Department, Virginia; Alexis Koo, Atlanta Fire Rescue, Georgia; Meredith Walker, Casselberry Fire Department, Florida; and Nadia Martinez, Austin Fire Department, Texas.

Megan Ellzy was hired in July 2011, graduating from the recruit academy in December, followed by a month of medic unit ride-alongs and assigned to a company in February, so she is still very new working in her new position. Is it what she expected?

“I had a look into the job before because I had volunteered, so it’s definitely what I expected. It’s actually even better. Every day, even if we hadn’t planned a company drill, there’s something I can do that keeps me busy. I never feel that I’m just sitting around, bored, waiting for something to happen. There’s always something to do, and I like that.”

Megan chose her department, at least in part, because of its size. The Alexandria Fire Department has nine stations with about 250 fire personnel plus EMS, which is a separate entity within the department.

“I chose Alexandria because I like the fact it’s smaller. It has that small town feel where you get to know everyone, and I feel that my opportunities are greater here. Since the others know me and I know them, it’s firsthand knowledge.”

The hiring process took five to six months, including the application, followed by a basic test on reading and math skills, then the CPAT, an interview with one of the assistant chiefs, and a psych test. She states one of the highlights was an interview with the fire chief:

“That was kind of neat because a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to do that, to sit down with the chief and have a face-to-face conversation. It was an interview, but he was open to questions as well. He was pretty direct about, ‘This is what we expect and this is how things go in our department.’ That was nice.”

Even though Megan is very new, she has already had the opportunity to distinguish herself. When she was in recruit school, she received an award given to the person who most promotes the values and traditions of the fire department, and who always goes the extra mile.

While it may be early for career goal-setting, Megan has already given it some thought. She is thinking about short-range and long-range goals.

“In the near future, I really just want to work on my rookie year, building a good foundation. I want to take classes that will help me learn my job better and eventually help me move up the ladder. I want to be seen as someone who does a good job and is someone you’d want to have on your crew. And, then later I do want to take the lieutenant’s exam and be promoted. I think it would be three to five years before I can do that. And then, based on how things go, and when I feel ready, I may go for a captain’s position. So yes, move up the ladder.”

Megan’s advice to women considering a career in the fire service or just starting out:

“It’s a great career. It’s a very physical job, so be aware of that. You can often adjust the way you do a certain task; you won’t necessarily do it the same way most of the guys do, but you can get it done just as well. It also takes a lot of dedication. There’s a lot of pride and tradition in the fire service. Just know that change doesn’t come easily. And for someone who is just starting, I would say always try to do the right thing, work hard, and excel at any task you’re given. The reputation you make during your first couple of years will most likely stick with you for the remainder of your career.”

Alexis Koo was hired in March 2011 and been out in the field about two months. I asked Alexis what attracted her to the fire service.

“I’ve always wanted to be in public safety, but I was somewhat limited in what I could do because I’m blind in one eye. I had a customer at my previous job who was an Atlanta firefighter. And he would come in and we’d talk and I’d ask him how his shift went. One day he came in and handed me an Atlanta Fire tee shirt and said, “Thank you for always being so kind to me.” It gave me the idea that maybe I should join the Atlanta Fire Department. It sounded like something I would love. So, just like that.”

So I had to ask if she was concerned that being blind in one eye would disqualify her.

“I actually was concerned. I still went through the hiring process, knowing that at any point I could get disqualified. It ended up not being a problem. I learned a few months ago that a year before I was hired, they had changed the NFPA standard that had said you’re not able to work as a firefighter with monocular vision.”

The Atlanta Fire Department is a metro size department, with 35 fire stations including five stations at the Atlanta Airport. The fire department’s reputation is what drew Alexis to apply there.

“I had applied to another fire department before Atlanta. But I heard a lot of great things about Atlanta, how they’re a more aggressive department than others in this area. They do more offensive than defensive firefighting. And they pride themselves on being one of the best fire departments in the Southeast.”

Alexis held two leadership positions while in recruit training—vice-president on the fire side and president on the EMS side. She was responsible for making sure everyone was on the same page, that they got their clean-up chores completed, and that they met their lieutenant’s standards and expectations. Now that she is assigned to a company, are there any surprises?

“It’s pretty much what I expected—no big surprises. I’m at Station 16, a busy company, and I’ve thought this isn’t that bad. I don’t think we’re all that busy. But I wasn’t accustomed to having any down time. I came from a very fast-paced work environment. We’re always training, always staying up with new techniques and procedures. One thing I’ve found hard to do is waking up at night for calls. I just have a hard time getting used to that. And we might have to get up 10 times after midnight.”

When asked if she felt she faced any special challenges because she may be perceived as different from the majority of the firefighters she works with, Alexis answered:

“I believe that since I’m a woman, people may think I may get a promotion just because of that or because I’m the only Asian woman in our department. I feel that people will always have their opinions and you can’t change that about them. What I can do is do my job the best I can and show I can do this job as well as the next person. That’s all I can do.”

Advice from Alexis to other women considering a career as a firefighter:

“Don’t ever give up, even if other people think you can’t do the job because of your size or because you’re a woman.”

Meredith Walker has been with the Casselberry Fire Department for about four and a half years. What attracted her to the fire service were the excitement and the sense of family.

“After college, I was taking EMT classes. I had to do two types of clinicals—one in the hospital and one in the fire department. When I did my ride-along with the fire department, it was so cool! We were busy, we got to help people, and we did fun things like rappelling. I was at a fun station and a busy one. Then we would sit down and eat dinner as a family. I thought this was awesome. And that’s what sold me on it.”

Meredith chose her department, in part, because of its size and the fact that they recruited her.

“I believe they might have reached out to me first. I think I got a phone call or an email from HR, saying, ‘We’re going to be hiring; would you send us your résumé?’ I had no idea at the time, but I learned later they get a recruitment list of females and other demographics for recruiting. The way we do our eligibility list, if you have a degree, you’re ranked higher on the list. I was the top student in my Fire Standards class. Plus I had a four-year degree, and I ranked well in the interview.

 

“There are pros and cons to being in a small department, kind of like a small university versus a big university. It’s like why I chose a small university. There’s a lot of one-one, you get to know your area. There are only two stations, whereas in the county you could have 20 stations and you’d always be floating around, and you don’t know the people a lot of the time. Of course there would be more opportunities to move up in a bigger department. So those are the pros and cons.”

Meredith spoke of the physical challenges and ways to overcome them.

“It was hard physically to do things, but not as hard as in Standards because I’m able to find the ways that work for me. In Standards, I had all male instructors. So it was, ‘This is the way you hold the hose and this way only,’ and ‘This is the way you do the ladders and this way only.’ Once you get out in the field and you start working with other females, you learn, ‘We can’t do it that way. This is how, as a female, you can use your body to lift the weight. We’re structured differently from men and you need to lift it this way, or walk it up this way, or pivot it this way.’ And oh, this was so much easier. But I didn’t have that direction in Standards with the male instructors.”

When asked about particular strengths she brings to the job as a woman or just as herself, she answers:

“I think women in general, maybe because they’re a little smaller, seem to thrive in the confined space area. We generally don’t get as claustrophobic as some men do, and we can move through the spaces more easily. One thing I think I’ve brought to the table is organization. I’m an organizer. I’m detail oriented, and I can see what needs to be done and how best to organize it.”

Advice from Meredith to women entering the fire service:

“Don’t get discouraged or intimidated. It’s hard. You’re going to face a lot of old school attitudes that this is a man’s job. But times are changing. You just need to keep a good attitude, and know that it’s possible. For us in Florida, everything you do in school is hard, and it’s probably harder than you’ll do in the field, but you don’t know that at the time. Everything you go through in school is by yourself as an individual. But in the field it’s a team. In fact freelancing is not done; it’s frowned upon to go off and do something by yourself. So even though you’re not going to have to do those things by yourself, it’s good to know you can.”

Nadia Martinez has been a firefighter with the Austin Fire Department for about five years. When asked what drew her to the profession, she answered:

“I’ve always been the outdoorsy type. I had thought about the fire service, but to be honest with you, I thought I was too small. I’m only 5’2”. And then one day I got a flyer in the mail, asking me to volunteer as a firefighter. I was living out in Lake Jackson, southeast of Houston, and they had a volunteer fire department. So I did that without really thinking too much about what it would involve. When I did my first live fire burn, I freaked out. I just wanted out. But I was with a friend of mine, an experienced volunteer, and he took me back inside and helped me realize I could do this. I could overcome this fear. Afterwards, I knew that if not for him, I would have quit. If not for him, I would not be here today.

“Then my cousin told me they were hiring in Austin and they were encouraging women to apply. So I applied and next thing I knew, I was passing test after test, and then I got accepted and I got into the academy. I was lucky because I got in on my first try. The academy was six months of hell, but I got through it.”

When asked about her experience of five years and how it has compared to her expectations, she replied:

“It became more than I expected in a good way. I knew it was going to be financially good. I wasn’t going to get rich, but I was going to be well off and have some security. And that’s part of why I wanted it. But once I got in, I got nervous. I thought they weren’t going to want a female in there. I thought there could be some type of hazing, some type of ugliness. It actually has been the exact opposite. I think I’ve been very, very lucky. Even though I’m not naïve enough to think that everyone’s comfortable with women being in the fire service, there has been very little negative. So my experience has been really good. If I’ve needed help, there’s always someone there to help me. Even in training, I never felt like they were trying to get rid of me. They were just trying to help me and make me better.”

Nadia is realistic when assessing what has been the most challenging part of being a firefighter.

“Oh definitely the physical part. That’s the most difficult part for me. That and not being tall enough. I can still get the job done; I just might do it a little differently like getting a rock or a stool to stand on. I try to work on my strengths, such as getting into the attic, or I’ll be the one to get into the manhole. Also, while I may not be able to break down the door with one kick, I’m the one who has the cardiovascular fitness to outlast my group. I’ll be the last one on air. So we all have our strengths and our weaknesses. Also, I’m bilingual, so if there are Hispanic people there, I can speak Spanish with them. Now that’s useful.”

Nadia’s advice to women who are seeking a career as a firefighter:

“Never give up. Never, ever give up. And that applies to any aspect. If doors close, keep going. Apply here, apply there, just keep going. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do this because you’re too small, or not strong enough, you’re not this, or you’re not that. And you can actually sabotage yourself. I remember sitting there in training and thinking, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ Don’t do that to yourself. You have to be positive and know you can do it." 

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