Beauty and the Beast

I have had this subject on my heart to write about for some time now. I am excited to write about something I believe needs awareness and some spotlight. Today I want to talk to you about women in the fire service. For some of you reading this it may not be something you thought about or it may not be an easy subject to talk about or for others I hope you are sitting there saying “YES Girl!!!”  A couple of weeks ago I sent out interview questions to some ladies who I know work in the fire service. The three I received back are from three different branches of the fire service and these ladies lead different lives. When I read some of the responses I had tears in my eyes and also gained some valuable knowledge as someone looking in.

Flower bouquet from wildbud.co

But I don’t want to start with these interviews just yet. I want to back track to my the first season my husband and I went through. You know, the one where he was a hotshot and I did not know what I was getting myself into. But did I learn quickly.  There was this one day he came home from a fire, it may have been one of his first fires he was on. But, back then we didn’t have iPhones, I think maybe the first camera phones had just come out. So my husband had one of those silver Kodak digital cameras he brought with him. We were really young and dating at this time, both of us still living at our parents. When I was over at his parents he wanted to jump in the shower and wash all the muck and crap from being on the fire line off. He handed me his camera and said check out the pictures while I take a shower. His parents wanted to see them too so I just plugged it straight into their computer and we started looking at the pictures together. Then that’s when it happened, one of the pictures was of two forest service women standing together for a picture. My first realization of women in the fire service. I was freaking out inside, like why in the heck did he have a picture of two women on his camera. But, on the outside I tried to remain cool because his parents were standing right there. I was so embarrassed. When we got a chance to talk alone I let it all out. I gave him the what for. Being young as I was, I jumped to conclusions, and made assumptions. But, then he explained that they had asked him to take a picture for them because they didn’t have any cameras and no one before really had a camera around, because like I said it was pre iPhones. He explained  he had only planned on sending it to them and then deleting it. It wasn’t for him but for them. After talking it out I realized his intentions were true and he had apologized for not telling me or giving me a heads up. And I apologized for not trusting him and jumping to conclusions. Again we were young and learning to navigate a new challenge in our relationship. Once I got to actually know these two women I realized they were not a threat to my relationship but actually were some of the kindest crew members to my husband. They had a beautiful compassionate side to them that the guy crew members lacked, and often were sisters and moms to all the guys. Even though this first experience wasn’t the best for me at the age of 19, it was something that was very valuable to learn. Looking back I shake my head at myself for ever doubting any good intentions. As hard as that is to share I also believe it is important to share because not all fire girlfriends or wives come to the realization that these women in the fire service are amazing people who have these amazingly beautiful hearts.

So, with that background let’s dive in to the interview questions. This first lady may or may not have been one of the women I mentioned above. haha See how it comes full circle. I have so much respect for Molly and her perspective on life in the fire service. And am grateful for the time my husband worked with her.

Molly’s Interview

1) Do you wish to remain anonymous?

No, its fine to use my name

2) What is your fire background up until now?

Structure Intern in HS, Got a job in Wildland a few years later. Started as a temp on an engine for a couple years, left the agency for a bit, came back as a demo (Perm) Engine Lead Crewmember 1 year>Assistant Engine Operator 3 years> Hot Shot Fill in & Detail > Hot Shot Squad Leader 8 years >Mom>Detailed to Engine Captain & Dispatch> Fire Engine Operator 1 year>Requested a demotion transfer to become a Fire Patrol 7 years ago.

3) As a female what is it like to work in a male dominated field?

I like it, it has its plus in minuses at times (like when it’s time to pee on the side of the road) but all in all I enjoy all the people I work with, but I do have to speak up if I need something but that goes for everyone. At the end of the day it is important to see each of us as part of a team, not to mention Mother Nature & the Fire environment is what truly discriminates us and treats us all very equally. There are politics & personality (otherwise known as ego) in this job for sure, but you have to keep your eye on the ball & keep an eye out for each other regardless of uniform, mission, module, color or gender.

4) What is dating like as a firefighter?

You date other Firefighters in my experience because telling a guy who you just met that you will be headed out for 2 weeks with 20 dudes & maybe you can call doesn’t always make sense to them.

5) Are you currently married? Or in a relationship? Explain your relationship and how the fire life effects it.

Yes, he is a Hot Shot Captain so I understand more than most what he is doing & why he might be acting a certain way. Plus, I know his duty to his job & crew. But I am definitely the one who now doesn’t fight as much fire. I stay close to home these days & I’m thankful I can, but the firefighter in me misses the life sometimes. I still contribute to fire suppression, just on more local levels, IA’s are pretty fun, especially when you chase them down & catch them.

6) Do you have kids? If Yes, how does it effect your role as a mom being in the fire service? Ex. Childcare, long stretches gone, missing milestones etc.

I am a Mom & it definitely impacts my service in that in the beginning, well not a lot of Hot Shot Supts know how to navigated Maternity leave (but mine worked really hard to take care of all of that) But you need flexibility & the agency doesn’t exactly have that figured out. They want women in the ranks, but they don’t seem to know how to support them from there as life happens, Dads too.

Luckily my Mom was & is the most amazing support to us. Otherwise I would’ve given up my career in order to stay home, which would have still been hard because with our wages you can’t afford daycare, but you also need two paychecks. I’m extremely grateful & mindful of the important role of family/friends are in being part of the Fire Service. I was almost 40 when I had my daughter & her Dad is in the business too, so I really changed my firefighter ways & he is on the road mostly. He does miss a lot & that is always hard as a parent. Especially as she gets older & really is vocal about her worries or her feeling. Breaks your heart sometimes, but she also is a trooper, all the fire kiddos are, they seem to understand that Mom & Dad are there to help others and they are a big part of that too.

7) How is it for you when fire gf’s/wives come around? Are you treated nicely by them and the families?

Yes, they have no choice really. I consider them family so I’m pretty forward. They sometimes don’t understand what it’s like or have fears, but I get that & I try to be respectful of it. I haven’t had any issue with the partners, they are always very cool to me. I did have a girlfriend think that we all slept in a big pile with a big blanket over us all. Yeah, negative. I can tell who was just in the bathroom or who let one fly in the buggy, so I don’t find your dude as sexy as you think. It’s much more of a brother/sister kinda thing 99% of the time. I did end up dating a fellow crewmember & that led to the family I have, but we didn’t tell anyone until I was leaving. I have been on both sides of the fence (I was married to a hotshot turned structure fire many years ago & we eventually divorced). So I am super mindful of how it feels to be the one at home waiting to hear from the one you love, the hard work, the loneliness, the worry, the pride – I get it & honor the strength it takes to love a firefighter. I do wish there was more support for the Men who love a firefighter, it’s not all just Fire Wives these days.

8) How do you deal with female things, such as hair, make up, hygiene, and other things?

I don’t…..just kidding! Lots of baby wipes and emergency supplies. I am very vocal about what I need, and I also am fine with not shaving for two weeks & having a perma-braid. The longest I went without a shower was two weeks, so those baby wipes are LIFE! But you pack what you need & speak up if you need more. PS you do all your business in the woods, so be ready. When you come hiking out of the bushes with a roll of toilet paper on your tool & walk right into another hotshot crew, well it is what it is. Just make sure you’re in the green & everything is buried.

9) What is the hardest thing about your job/career?

Everything

10) What is the best thing about your job/career?

Everything

11) What do your days off look like? What do you enjoy doing during down time?

Very simple yet very busy. Since I’m a Mom there are lots of things to catch up on & I also want to spend as much time as I can with her.

12) Have you ever been treated differently because for being a woman in your field?

Yes, but mostly by non-firefighters/public & sometimes by management. But it seems I do need to say things a certain way to get folks to listen sometimes. Or I would get talked over & around, but you just have to say something in that moment & shut it down so you can get the work done you are out there to do. I don’t think its as intentional as it is habit.

13) Something that the public may not understand or is a misconception about your job?

They get a smokin deal because we sleep in the dirt, don’t make squat, and walk further than anyone will even do, or know & we work our asses off. The federal firefighters are very different than State & local Resources. We ALL have a place & job to do, but we are very different.

14) What would be helpful to you as a woman and as a firefighter in your line of work?

Nomex that was cut for woman to work in.

15) Friendships what are those like for you?

My fire friendships are kind of indescribable. You do these amazing things together & they bond you in a way that is so unique. It’s a big part of why & how I do what I do.

16) Any advice for current or future female firefighters?

Know your stuff, know yourself & never give up. Push yourself early & learn as much as you can so you can set yourself up for things like a family later on (if that is your goal). But I wish I pushed myself earlier in my career. Now that doesn’t mean you have to be a captain as soon as possible, I think its critical to gain as much knowledge, get work hardened & know your craft as well as your enemy (fire & nature, I know its beautiful but it will kill you no matter what you are & who you work for – NEVER FORGET THAT) & that means hard work on the hill & paying attention. Get really good at using the equipment too. Saws, pumps, engines & tools. Know them & use them. Also, have a diverse skill set, I know I couldn’t do all the really physical things all the guys could but I had endurance & I had the ability to take care of other things that kept the crew going, so I found my strengths to balance out my weaknesses. Oh & take no shit!

17) And…This is where you get to add or talk about anything else fire related or not. Anything I missed or you feel like needs to be added.

N/A

I really enjoyed hearing Molly’s point of view and love her matter of fact attitude. I believe it is what sets her apart and helps her be an amazing firefighter, woman and mom. As a mom of girls if they ever decided to be a firefighter I would hope they had the strength Molly has.

This next lady I have known for years. We went to high school together and I have always respected her point of view. The first time I saw Elizabeth in uniform and as a firefighter was when she was grocery shopping with her crew. It is always fun to run into someone you haven’t seen for a long time and seeing them doing well. Some of her answers to the interview questions brought tears to my eyes.

Elizabeth’s Interview

1) Do you wish to remain anonymous?

You can use my name
2) What is your fire background up until now?
I grew up having a family that was in the fire service. I started my first fire class my SR. year of high school. After high school I worked for Cal fire for 9 years and now have been with Modesto City just over 2.5 years.

3) As a female what is it like to work in a male dominated field?
I have a bunch of brothers that I have a unique relationship with each and every one. Sometimes I’m the little sister, sometimes the big sister that has to put them in their place, after the hard calls or they are having a hard time in another area of life. I am the mom that listens and try’s to give advice, I’m the wingman for the single guys. It allows them to see things from the women’s side. I guess that reflects the relationship I have with them. The working relationship is they lean on me and I lean on them. I learned at a young age that most men need to see things to believe. So, if I tell them all the things I can do it means nothing. If I keep my mouth shut and do the job I gain respect. That being said I had to prove myself in order to have respect in the fire service. I have been told, “I don’t care if you are brown, purple, male or female, if you can do the job I am happy to work with you!” But I had to prove myself just the same as the next person. There are lonely days. Sometimes I just want girl time. When I’m on duty for a long time I want to wear girl clothes, do my hair and makeup. Not to catch the attention of the guys, but because I love being a women. That is one of my struggles for sure and it has come from other women. If I wear a dress off duty and am going out with everyone I have been looked down on because I look good. The wives girlfriends may be showing more skin but because I look like a women then I must want the wrong attention. It has gotten much better as I have gotten older and the wives have seen me on duty and see that my hair is a mess and I’m there to work not look good.

4) What is dating like as a firefighter?

Imagine having 10 big brothers and that explains how my dating days were. But it also allowed me to bounce situations off of my crew and see things from a man side.
I had many dating relationships end because the man couldn’t handle me being a firefighter. I had a guy say, “If you ever want to get married, you need to quit your job and find a more womanly based job!” He didn’t make it to a second date.

My husband is in the fire service and when we were dating he had an older women say, “I know why you like her, you can pull her behind your transport any time you want to and you get some even when you are at work!”

The thought that another women could even think that way crushed me. I am a firefighter because it is what I am called to do. God made me to be able to do this job. From the way my body is made to the way I interact with people. I have to have the confidence in who God created me to be and not focus on what others might think my reason I’m doing the job is.

5) Are you currently married? Or in a relationship? Explain your relationship and how the fire life effects it.

I’m married to my Sugar! He is my rock, encourager, listening ear and the one that tells me suck it up buttercup. We are both in the fire service so to say we have a different life then most is an understatement. Our lives are balanced by a calendar and being willing to plans changing based on emergencies. There are times my husband goes on shift the same day I come off shift. But it works for us. There are times I come off shift and only slept 4 hours in 48 hours and I’m grumpy and my hubby lovingly tucks me in bed at 9 am. I have learned my husband doesn’t like to hear about the unsafe times at work, or the close calls I had. So I don’t tell him. The fire service is in our daily life and there are days we wish to turn it off and we can’t but there are other days we have to run away to the east side of Yosemite where we don’t have service and we can reconnect with each other and disconnect from the stress the job puts in our lives. Or if we can’t run away we sit on the porch swing and listen to music just long enough to relax and enjoy who we are outside of the job.

6) Do you have kids? If Yes, how does it effect your role as a mom being in the fire service? Ex. Childcare, long stretches gone, missing milestones etc.

N/A

7) How is it for you when fire gf’s/wives come around? Are you treated nicely by them and the families?
This really depends on the other women. A lot of women don’t like the idea of it and then they meet me and are totally cool.
I have had women that won’t talk to me and then their husband walks up and they act super cool. I have had other women that are super cool and some of my biggest fans. I love when wives come around though. I get girl time but I also am their biggest fans. We are all on the same team and a part of the same family.

8) How do you deal with female things, such as hair, make up, hygiene, and other things?

Let me tell you, when the tones drop and I’m in the shower, putting a sports bra on with a wet back is a tall task. I have had to go to calls with shampoo dripping down my face or the conditioner still in my hair.

With a lot of things in the fire service I have had to find what works for me. My hair is an example of this, policy says I have to have it above the collar and look neat. If I wear my hair in a bun and put on my SCBA mask I don’t get a good seal. I have found if I braid my hair I get the seal I need. But I also found it has to be a side braid to the right. If I go straight down my back or to the left my hair gets stuck in Velcro on my gear. Or under my radio strap. Pulling my hair out once was enough to find another way that worked for me.

Being on your period just plain sucks. When I worked for CAL FIRE and we were on an incident for a long time I would have tampons in my pack and I would use the restroom out in the woods behind a tree. My crew has always been respectful and given me the privacy I needed. Now that I work for a city department I have to be honest with my crew and say I need to use the restroom. Jokes about the places I could use are made but we find a bathroom.

This may sound silly but there are a lot of women things that I don’t know. I don’t bounce those things off the guys at work and they surely don’t talk about them so it makes it really hard to know.

9) What is the hardest thing about your job/career?
I had to think hard about this question. Different days bring different challenges but that is something I love about the job. I don’t know if this is the hardest side of the job but mental health is a hot topic in the fire service. We don’t get to choose the bad things that we see but we do get to choose how we deal with those images. Some calls are easy to handle and others will stick with me my entire career.

10) What is the best thing about your job/career?

I get to do what I was made to do. I love people and everyday I get to help people. I never come to work and the day is the same. Everyday brings a different challenge.

11) What do your days off look like? What do you enjoy doing during down time?

I love the outdoors and being in them with my love or my family and friends. Love to hike, fish, swim or garden.

12) Have you ever been treated differently because for being a woman in your field?

I have been.

13) Something that the public may not understand or is a misconception about your job?
I would say 90% of people that ask me what I do and find out that I am a firefighter ask, “so what do you do, you wear the gear and actually fight fire?” I have never heard a man asked this! When I say “yep I sure do!” They ask, “like you pull the hose and go inside!” I just smile and say yes.
One day I really want to say that I cook and clean for the guys so they can do their job well.

14) What would be helpful to you as a woman and as a firefighter in your line of work?
My uniform in a women’s cut.

15) Friendships what are those like for you?

All of my work friends are men and that is who I am around most of the time so girl friends are hard to come by. I love having girl friends but if I’m honest being around a group of women makes me nervous. I don’t always know what to talk about.

16) Any advice for current or future female firefighters?

Allow your actions to speak louder than your words.
Be confident in who you are but not prideful.
If you are having a hard time ask for help.
Train till you find a way that works for you. Try the way someone shows you but if it’s not working for you make an adjustment so it does.
Know your strength and work on your weakness.

17) And…This is where you get to add or talk about anything else fire related or not. Anything I missed or you feel like needs to be added.
Thank you for an interest in women in the fire service. Some great women before us paved a hard road, and I hope to be maintaining and improving that road through my career. For the fire wives that are reading this, thank you for allowing me to do what I was made to do by supporting me. Your trust is not taken lightly.

So so so much love for Elizabeth. I appreciated her willingness to share the details of some of the things she has had to deal with. But also her strength to not allow those things to keep her from what she is called to do. I am forever a fan for sure! Keep doing what you’re doing and helping pave the way girl!

IMG_7641

Elizabeth in action

This next and last lady chose to stay anonymous but trust me when I say she is one of my most favorite people. She has a beautiful heart and truly cares for others in a way so rare. She passionately wants to see people succeed in all they do.

Check out her Interview

1) Do you wish to remain anonymous?

Yes, but you can reference my position or that I work for a wildland department

2) What is your fire background up until now?

I began my fire career at age 19 as a volunteer firefighter. I was working private ambulance and most of my partners were volunteers at various departments and testing for paid fire departments. They would constantly tell me how much fun they were having and what a great experience the fire service had been. I decided to become a volunteer and thought it would be a good way to get more EMS experience. Though out of my time as a volunteer my fellow firefighters encouraged me to take classes, attend trainings and even enroll in a Firefighter 1 academy, they really kept encouraging me and telling me that I would love this job. After a few years working as a paramedic, I decided I needed a break from EMS and thought a seasonal firefighting job would be a perfect summer break. I pretty much fell in love with the job on my first shift. I loved the wildland academy and within the first shift I was gone out of county and on a fire. I’d say I decided that wildland fighting was my career within the first shift! From there I continued working as a seasonal firefighter, volunteering and took on more responsibilities at the volunteer department. I began taking fire classes, finishing my Bachelor’s degree and continued working ambulance. I even took a position as a dispatcher to gain more experience. I eventually got a permeant firefighter job and worked my way up through the ranks. As an engineer and captain, I worked both wildland and structure stations/engines, dispatch, aircraft and inmate hand crews. After 18 years I promoted to my current rank of battalion chief.

3) As a female what is it like to work in a male dominated field?

I always find this question interesting…. I have definantly had a different answer for this depending on where I was at in my career. First and foremost, I love this job and what I do, I love the guys that I work with and have met along the way and I don’t really think about the fact that there are more males around than females. I think I notice it most when I’m heading out of county or to a training because if there is another female I have to share a room. 😊 I have had extremely supportive partners and supervisors, ones that were willing to teach and coach (male or female) and really were able to see each person for what they brought to the group. I have always had more male friends, been a girly tomboy and played on co-ed sports teams (all girls teams didn’t exist when I first started playing) so I think the male environment is natural to me. I enjoy the off cuff male sense of humor, I do like that I don’t have to be guarded in what I say or fluff or polish a response. I do enjoy the “tell you to your face honesty” that you don’t always get with females and the competitive push to always be your best. And all together I love the comradery and the “brothers” I have gained along the way.

But all of those things have a negative as well, had you asked me this question as a new young firefighter I would say that it’s simple as long as you can hold your own, do your job and you can talk and joke like the rest of the guys then there is no difference. It’s just like hanging out with the guys, but as I returned season after season and began to promote reality settled in. Somethings are always going to be true, if you can do your job and hold your own then it just like any other job and you will be respected. The difference being that every shift, every new partner every new boss, you have to prove yourself. The male firefighters have to do the same, however they are assumed able to do their job until they prove otherwise but as a female I always feel that you are looked at with skepticism. You are assumed unable to do the job until you prove that you can. Even once you have proven your ability, there are going to be those people that think it was just luck and you will need you to prove yourself time and time again. That sort of unspoken skepticism definantly starts to weigh on you. I went through a period where I began to wonder if I was really cut out for the job and because of that doubt I tried to stay away from the non-machismo jobs. I forced myself to do the things (Truck Company, Handcrews, busy wildland stations) that would have to make those people see just how capable and good I was. I was fortunate enough to have a chief who respected me as a firefighter and company officer and who I know fought for me behind closed doors. It took a while for me to really be okay with my path and what I was good at and not let myself be bothered by other people’s judgement. I think that the longer I stayed in one area, those co-workers and supervisors began to see over and over that I was capable and began to respect what I brought to the table.

One of the hard things to still hear is when males will make the comments about other female firefighters and how they were hired when there was a push to hire women or when there were two lists (minority list and a white male list) or how they were skipped over for promotion so that the female could get hired. I have heard plenty of comments about females that are aggressive and assertive, they are referred to as a bitch or worse. And plenty of unflattering comments about other females’ personal lives. The mindset is still out there that females are a pity hire and sadly if they are making those comments about others they most likely say something similar about you but more important if they are making those comments then they really think that a female isn’t as capable. What is most disheartening about that is that these are my partners, the guys that we are supposed to have each other’s back.

As a new firefighter I definantly looked the other way on the culture, jokes and comments. I am comfortable in the male atmosphere, however as a firefighter there were things that were said that now I wouldn’t let fly. As a new firefighter I would have told you that I really enjoy the chatter and jokes and comradery and I still do, but now I have no problem saying “hey that’s not funny” or “that’s too far” Some of that is experience, confidence and maturity and some of that is as you take on positions of leadership you cannot waver on your values and you need to set an example.

4) What is dating like as a firefighter?

I have been in the emergency service field since I was about 18 so all of my dating has been as a firefighter. Initially there is this intrigue and excitement about you being a firefighter, but once some of your personality traits that allow you to be a firefighter come out not everyone is okay with that. I have dated both guys out of the fire service and in the fire service and there is a weird balance of finding someone who understands the job and yet is still separate from it. All of the guys that I dated outside of the fire service didn’t last long, again they thought it was pretty cool what I did but had a hard time with me being able to hold my own or take care of things. Some had a difficult time with me always being around males or constantly thought that my partners were trying to hit on me. Some were really bothered by us living together or sharing bathrooms. It was hard to explain why I wouldn’t be home for weeks, or why I was forced on and couldn’t say no. Not understanding the culture or having worked around other females in that capacity made it hard for them to understand or get me. Most of those relationships didn’t last long. I found dating others in the fire service or from other departments, EMS, or military to be a better fit. I don’t know if that was just where I felt more comfortable or where I mesh better but it just seemed that those groups had a better acceptance of who I am and what I do. This group of people understood the culture, they had worked with other females, they understand the demands of the job and in the end, I married someone from the same department. I think it’s easier to understand the stress that each of us are carrying or the frustration with forced shifts or out of counties. I did find over the years that you can have both sides to you and that who I am at work and how I handle situations that is not how I handle situations in a relationship. One of the things that really attracted me to my husband is that he liked who I was at work, get things done and take charge, but he also allowed me to be a partner and, in some areas, a traditional female in our relationship. Finding someone who valued and respected both side of me was crucial in a relationship.

5) Are you currently married? Or in a relationship? Explain your relationship and how the fire life effects it.
Yes, married for 11 years together for 17 years. Our relationship is unique in the sense that my husband is physically disabled. Having come from the fire service himself, he understands the demands of the job, he’s proud of my successes and has helped me navigate the craziness of our job, but the job has also created stress. There is the sadness and even jealously that I am out there having fun and fighting fire while he is struck in a chair. There is a mutual stress of me being gone and unable to take care of him or keep his very important routine. Because of the brain injury he cannot always process where I am at or what is going on, he cannot always follow along with reality so he gets angry that I am not there to fix the problem or to prevent it from happening. There was a period where the demands of the fire service were so great that I couldn’t take care of him as well as I would have liked and I can still see the physical effects in him. Because of his needs I have always made decisions on what would be best for him, I haven’t always taken the job that I would have if life were perfect or I have skipped over applying for positions because it wouldn’t be the best thing for him. I have no regrets on my decisions or “wish I would have’s” but I think it’s important to mention that our relationship and his needs have dictated what I have been able to do.

6) Do you have kids? If Yes, how does it effect your role as a mom being in the fire service? Ex. Childcare, long stretches gone, missing milestones etc.

No, but I am fully responsible for caring for a disabled husband. I have been very fortunate to have his parents support which allowed me to be gone on long stretches, however they couldn’t always take him to appointments or physical therapy and after numerous long busy summers I started to see the physical effects on my husband. Having to take care of someone has definitely factored into positions I have accepted or applied for and now that his parents are not able to be as involved I have to have pre-arrange care and up until my recent assignment I also had to have plans in place for 24 hour shifts or response from home. There was a point in my career where training schedules actually cost me more in caregivers than I would make for the week. There is always a delicate balance of overtime and what I have to pay for caregivers.

7) How is it for you when fire gf’s/wives come around? Are you treated nicely by the them and the families?
I feel like I am, I have known many of them for years. I don’t really feel like I have ever been unwelcomed. They aren’t my group of friends but I do feel quite welcomed and have fun hanging out with them.
8) How do you deal with female things, such as hair, make up, hygiene, and other things?
I think I just deal, I have never really thought about it. I always like to start the day with a little make up, most people probably have no idea that I have it on, but it is a little part of me that feels put together and like I have my best foot forward if I take the time to do that. But that’s really the last time in the day that I think about that. I’ve found with my hair that I like it up and completely out of my face! I do find that I over wash my hair, like once or twice a day wash, just because of all the dirt, grime, soot and funk that gets in your hair in just a day. There have been plenty of times that I have washed my hair at the end of the day and there is just muddy soot water coming out of it!
As far as hygiene goes, I work wildland so we are all smelly and funky out there on the fire line. If nothing else I’ve learned to let me guard down and be a little dirty and okay with it when I’m working but as soon as the work is over I want a shower. I have always used things like baby wipes and now the commercial fire wipes just to get the carcinogens off my body and have always made it a priority to use saunas and get facials off duty just to get that stuff out of your system. When it comes to that time of the month, I feel like crap for a day and I have had those days when I had to drag my butt up the fire line, but it can’t be an excuse or even known. I look at it like my allergies you just feel like crap, but you still have to work.
One of my silly moments where appearance and fire came to clash is when I took a blast of heat to the face. Since I was a newer firefighter, I of course didn’t think it was cool to wear my goggles, well that blast of heat singed off half my eyebrow and for a few weeks I had to draw my brow in! Another one of my favorites is after a fire or a training you are covered in bruises especially on the legs, well I have gone to many of weddings, baby and bridal showers where I have had other females stare at my legs. I just laugh but I do have a group of friends from a bit of a higher class up bringing and you can tell there’s a little bit of horror in the face 😊

9) What is the hardest thing about your job/career?
The constant on all the time, the constant hypervigilance, constant on the go, constant ready for action and the further up the chain I go that becomes 24/7. You are always on and always representing your department so even on our off time you are expected to preform. I am expected to answer my phone 24/7 and to be able to handle a work problem on my day off. This ate me up for a few years, it really affected me as a person and being able to handle and live life. I affect my home, my relationships and my husband. I was always working, never off and always somehow connected with work. I have gotten better over the years about shutting off, I make it a point once a week to completely disconnect, but my friends and my sister are crucial to this. They keep me grounded to who I am – to the crazy, goofy, fun person that can’t always be out. They make sure that I get back to that person and let work go every once and a while. One of the reasons I love being around my nieces is that I’m really about as sophisticated as a kid and I love how unleashed and free spirted children can be so when I am with them I get to just have that sort of unleashed free fun.

10) What is the best thing about your job/career?

The people! I truly enjoy those that I work around and those that I get to teach. I really enjoy seeing my firefighters promote and seeing their excitement for the career ahead of them. I get a little smile on my face when I hear someone say a phrase I would tell them. I enjoy helping our partners and seeing someone who was struggling come back around. I love the days spent on a fire or in the engine laughing so hard that we were in tears and some of the crazy things we “got away with” I truly show up each day because of the people that we get to share this experience with. I also can’t deny that I love the physical outside all the time aspect of the job. I love to be outside and hike so that part is pretty cool too.

11) What do your days off look like? What do you enjoy doing during down time?

If it was a perfect world then I would spend my days off trail running or hiking all day with my husband. I do make it a point to go for a run, hike or gym each of my days off, but my days off are spent getting my husband to appointments or just getting him out to the store or the trail. The rest of my days off are just spent doing life things, mowing lawns, cleaning, laundry ect… Over the years I have come to realize just how important it is to make time for yourself so I make it a point that every Sunday morning whether I go for a run or a hike or I just skip that all together and wader around a store, I check out, there are very few numbers that will come through my phone or that I will answer during that time and I defiantly do not take my work phone with me!

12) Have you ever been treated differently because for being a woman in your field?

Yes and no. There is always the natural male/female reaction, especially as a firefighter there was that sort of male protectiveness. It’s a let me grab your bag or hold the door or stand up for you. It is innocent and not a reflection of being able to do your job or fit in with the group. It’s just normal male reaction to females. It took a bit to realize I wasn’t being treated differently but rather naturally. It still happens, just this week I had a chief that is my superior hold a door open for me, but usually I make a comment like “after you Chief” and that becomes an unspoken put us back into the fire service structure and out of nature’s hierarchy. I make it a point to hold open doors for my partners or grab their bags, almost a preemptive action so that they can’t.

On the actual job, no once we start working the idea that I am a female seems to go away and everyone just goes to work. The niceties of helping you pick something up go away and its really about the job.

I did start in the fire service when there were a lot of people that got hired at time when there were two lists (one minority list and one male list) so every once and awhile you’ll catch a whiff of that attitude. I have had it happen when task were being given out for the day and I got put on cooking even though it was someone else cook day or I got moved to the back seat of the engine (ie the back-up nozzle person). I think those attitudes are rare from when I was a firefighter 15 plus years ago. In the last 5-7 years, I haven’t had those moments. Again, I think some of that is also because after this many years my partners, chiefs ect have come to accept me as being capable and able to do the job.

13) Something that the public may not understand or is a misconception about your job?

The job is not Chicago Fire! Our job is not as exciting and easy as they make it seem on TV. We do have busy shifts, weeks, months but it’s not all the time. We spend our days training and doing projects. There are busy departments that are like what they show on TV but that is a very small percentage. This job is manual labor, it’s dirty, hard and long, the public never sees the mental and physical stress this job has on you. On TV they make the females slim and put together, the truth is that those females wouldn’t be able to physically do the job and being that put together after training or station work isn’t a reality. The public thinks this job is sexy and they know it’s hard but they have no idea the hours, days, and years of training, sweating and fatigue we go through to be able to keep up. The public forgets that that there are actual blood, sweat and tears that go into everything we do.

14) What would be helpful to you as a woman and as a firefighter in your line of work?

Its okay to walk away from this career. I think all of us that are intrigued by this type of work also have a headstrong going to get it done, going to make it happen attitude. I feel that people (male or female) sometimes stay in this career because we are not the type to quit. Especially as a female you don’t want anyone to think you can’t make it, but truly it’s okay to walk away. If you start in this career young enough life will change so many ways and it’s okay to say this job doesn’t work for you anymore.
The other is that you will have to wok physically harder. Our body and muscle structure are built different. Most males can do this job just off of just natural ability, as a female you need to learn technique and you need to maintain your physical fitness. Being a female is not an excuse for not being able to do something, learn the proper way to do things and then practice. You may have to spend more time practicing but that is part of being a female in a physically demanding job. Seek out those with similar body types, I learned to throw a ladder from a shorter male who was able to show me his technique whereas another female who was taller couldn’t really help me. Don’t ever let it be acceptable that a crew member has to help you to complete a task that should be a one-person job, carry your weight on the crew.

15) Friendships what are those like for you?

Some of my best friends are those outside the fire service and those I have known for years. I have a group of friends from college who are crazy and fun and never let me forget the girl they knew from college. I love to be around them because they aren’t in the fire service, they aren’t intimidated or impressed by what I do or my rank, they just want to hang out have fun and they make sure that we all drop all the responsibility and stress that life and work can bring. I have another friend who I’ve known since my 20’s, she isn’t in the fire service but has always been a part of that group. She and I have gone through a lot together, she’s been there in the front seat for a lot of my big stressful crazy moments. (She was there the night of my husband’s accident, just to name one) Both of these groups keep me true to who I am, we keep each other in check and make sure that neither of forget that those girls that we were years ago are who we are at the core and before life got in the way. We definitely make sure that we bring that out in each other. I don’t get to see these girls that often, but every time we talk or see each other it’s just like we saw each other yesterday or just talked on the phone ten minutes ago.

Lastly my sister is another giant rock for me, like all sisters we have had our love and hate each other moments, but in the end, there aren’t many people who understand you better than your sister. She and I are very close, and I think because we are family we make more of a point to physically see each other. We talk about once a week, or at least FaceTime with her girls and there isn’t much that we don’t know about each other. She too is another one that keeps me grounded and true to myself.

16) Any advice for current or future female firefighters?

If you want to do this job, be true to yourself and don’t compromise who you are because you think that they will accept you more. Who you are is awesome and definitely good enough, if you work at a station or a battalion that doesn’t appreciate then find a place that does. There are so many departments and agencies and with that so many different personalities, find the one that fits for you and don’t try to change who you are. This environment can test your values and you, but don’t ever let this job change who you are.

17) And…This is where you get to add or talk about anything else fire related or not. Anything I missed or you feel like needs to be added.

I don’t really think about being a female in this job until I am asked about it. I think it is so important to look at this as a job, and not as a female in this job. If you start to think about all the differences or things that happen because you are female, you can easily get jaded and discouraged (and I defiantly went through that). Being a firefighter as female should be just that being a firefighter. It is a hard mentally and physically demanding job, that will take over you as a person. For me it’s just like anything I do in life, I want to be my best, I want to give everything I have and do everything in my power to make sure that when I walk away at the end of the day I know that I gave everything and gave the best version of me. For me this job is really about enjoying something that is challenging and hard and making a commitment to rise to the occasion each and every time and each and every day.

She truly is an amazing person and I know I completely appreciate who she is and what she is about. She has faced a lot in her life and has handled it with such grace and dignity. And I completely admire her. Again another truly strong lady!

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My hope in doing these interviews is to give you a perspective that may not be seen by a lot of people. I know for me I learned a lot more then I thought I might asking these questions. It gave me a lot to think about that I hadn’t before. Although I gave my first experience story with women in the fire service it is no where near where I am now and what I think. My perspective as a young woman wasn’t always good and I am glad I never held on to that but learned from it. I love having conversations when I see these women and completely support who they are and what they’re about. In my opinion there needs to be a lot more of that. Next time you see one of the ladies you know at your husband’s station or whatever your position may be with the fire service strike up a conversation. Support all the men and women who are laying their lives down for their communities. You never know their stories or where they came from. Strength I believe isn’t something most people just automatically have. It is something that through experience and trial and errors that you gain. These women are some of the strongest women I know and it is something to appreciate. I am grateful for these women who bravely agreed to answer my interview questions and proud to know them too. They are all beauties in the midst of the beast of the fire life.

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Beauty and the Beast

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