By Rachel Staebell
It was the summer of 2000, and I was a brand new emergency medical technician working for the local ambulance. I was still deciding what to do with my life and what I wanted for a career. I had been on several calls with female firefighters from the city department. One particular night, one of the female firefighters pulled me aside after the call and told me about an upcoming training at the department’s training tower. She told me it was nothing formal, just a way to allow women who are interested in getting a fire job to come practice for the physical test. She said it would be just female firefighters and other gals interested in testing. It was eye opening to say the least.
Prior to this night, I had zero knowledge of what went into being a firefighter. All I knew was that I could barely breathe as I tried to climb the stairs with that weight vest on; no way was I going to be able to do anything else once I reached the top. I came to three more of these informal physical practice sessions. Each one focused on a different skill and, after each session, they coached me on tips and tricks and what I needed to do to get in better shape and complete each obstacle. The women were so supportive and seemed to see something in me that I had not yet realized. These firefighters were not being paid to be there; rather, they gave their time to invest in me and the other candidates. They understood it was more than just succession planning. They understood that they could have a positive impact on those who will fill the seats after them.
Fast forward to 2005. I was hired by my department and completed the fire academy. Many of these women who tutored and mentored me became my friends. I will never forget the investment they made in me and, as a result, I pay it forward every chance I get.
My message to you is simple: Get involved. We have come so far as women in the fire service, but there is still so much work to be done. We are in a time when gear and equipment manufacturers are starting to rethink the way they make products. Boots and gloves are becoming accessible to those with smaller-stature hands and feet. Uniform companies are making uniforms that actually fit women. Departments nationwide are developing policies and facilities that make their departments equitable for female firefighters. More and more women are becoming chiefs, and more and more chiefs are recognizing the benefits of a diverse workforce. Now is the time to engage. Strike while the iron is hot.
Power to Contribute
We can all think about one or two women, even groups of women, we hear about or see working tirelessly, pushing the fire service forward. These women seem to make a difference no matter what they do or say. We admire their spirit and resiliency in the face of change. What I want you to understand is that each and every one of us has the power to contribute. No matter your rank or role, we all have to step up and have some skin in the game. As the fire service changes, so should our perspective. Those who have been the tip of the spear are ready for new blood, new perspectives, and new energy, and that is where you come in.
We make up such a small percentage of the job but have the power to change that. It is so easy to sit back, complain, be disengaged, and not participate. It is easy to hit cruise control once you’ve made it and gotten your seat on the rig. I’ve heard all the excuses: “I’m the only woman at my department,” “I don’t have time,” “I won’t know anyone at those things (conferences),” “I am only one woman, and what good could I do?” Well, ladies, nothing about this job is easy, nor should we be accustomed to “easy.” There are young girls and women out there who see you, even if you don’t see them. They might just be waiting for you to show them that firefighting is an option. Maybe there is already a female firefighter out there who just needs a mentor, a supportive peer, or an example of how to make this job extraordinary. It’s time we come together, acknowledge that it takes all shapes and sizes, and support each other through this journey. We can be the change we want to see.
When I teach at conferences, I reach out to other female firefighters I know and ask if they will instruct. So many are reluctant because they think they are not experts. They have never taught, so naturally they never knew they could. Once they are there, teaching other women the skills to be a successful firefighter, they understand why I asked them to participate. They see the connection, the comradery, and the shared experience with these younger firefighters. Many of us know what it was like to learn things the hard way as we matured in the fire service. How nice to give the newer firefighters a leg up from where we had it.
If you have never been to an I-Women conference, let me tell you, it is like nothing you have ever done. Imagine being surrounded by a hundred other women who have a shared experience and do the same job you do! If you’re like me, you may only see one or two other female firefighters at any given time day to day at work. This is what makes conferences so special. It is a chance to network, learn, and train in a very unique environment of all female firefighters, an opportunity to be around other women who understand your successes and failures because they have experienced them too. It is an experience I hope you get to have at least once in your career.
You don’t have to look to the national level to find female firefighter events. Several states have started conferences geared to female firefighters. Even on social media, there are many different groups that allow for networking for female firefighters. The point is that we are out there, working, training, and giving to our communities. We need to be engaged in the future of the fire service at every level. There are so many opportunities for you to be involved. There are fire camps for young women, state and national conferences, mentor programs, and so much more. You don’t have to go across the country just to be involved. Take classes at local conferences, and seek out ways to make yourself better. Ask your chief to support your attendance at the next I-Women conference. Volunteer your time to firefighter summer camps for girls. Race in the Firefighter Combat Challenge. Participate on committees in your own department. Teach a class at a conference. Be a supporter of those women around you, both new firefighters and salty veteran ones.
Invest in Women
Captain Angie Hughes, the president of I-Women, asked us in her keynote speech at the Fire Department Instructors Conference International to invest in ourselves. I echo that message and add that it is time for all of us to invest in the future of women in the fire service. I challenge you to leave it better than you found it. Whether you know it or not, someone somewhere invested time and energy for you. Someone helped pave the way for you on your road to success. It’s time we pay it forward and have an impact on the future of the fire service.
Let’s take accountability and control over our future. We have an opportunity like never before to lend our individual support and perspective to our future as female firefighters. Trust me when I tell you, the fire service needs us too.
Rachel Staebell is a lieutenant/paramedic with a fire department in Colorado and a member of I-Women.