I had always wanted to be a firefighter since childhood, but because I was a girl that was just not an option. I was very active in sports, but education came first and I was considering becoming a veterinarian. The notion of being a firefighter was out of mind until I enrolled in an Emergency Medical Technician class at Mesa Community College. I was a lifeguard at the time and thought the extra knowledge and training would be helpful. Looking back, I owe my firefighting career to my EMT instructor at the time, retired Mesa Battalion Chief Steve Blum, who had persistently encouraged me to apply for an upcoming fire department exam. I thought he was crazy. I failed the test, but the interest had been stirred. I then made it my mission to become a firefighter and four years later my dream became a reality.
The four month recruit academy was very challenging for me, but I can honestly say that I will never forget my first week on the job. My very first shift came with the sad news that one of our firefighters had committed suicide at his home. Two shifts later we responded to a pediatric drowning. I had been a lifeguard for six years and had never performed CPR. There I was with two days on the job doing CPR on an 18 month old blonde hair blue-eyed little boy that ultimately died. You can train all you want for the physical part of the job; the emotional aspect can sometimes crush you.
As I settled into the job, I found that I really enjoyed driving the trucks when I had the chance. With five years on the job, an opportunity came up to test for Engineer. I was 8 months pregnant with my first child at the time and very hesitant to take the exam, but decided to go ahead with it. There were four segments to the process: a written exam, a driving practical, a pumping practical, and an interview. I barely fit behind the steering wheel for the driving practical, and I was required to get a doctor’s note allowing me to participate in the pumping practical. I was officially promoted to Engineer April 3, 2000, three days after my son was born. To this day some of the guys still joke with me that I “had help with the test”, referring to my unborn son at the time!
Being a female firefighter is certainly not easy. This is not a profession for the meek, those with weak stomachs, those who are overly concerned with their appearance, or those who are easily offended. There are some obvious challenges that must be overcome by women, primarily concerning strength. Equipment fit can also be an issue, since firefighting gear is made to fit men. These matters aside, there are also some very strong and entrenched opinions out there regarding women in the fire service. I have personally been subject to some very rude and derogatory comments from other valley firefighters, patients, and the general public. If I would have listened to all the people along the way who told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t do this I would not be where I am today.
I can truly say that I love my job and that I enjoy going to work. There are things that we do every day as far as a daily routine goes, but every day brings something different and that is what I love about it. I am still sometimes shocked at people’s reaction to me being a firefighter, especially when they find out I drive the truck. I enjoy watching people carefully choose their words trying to respectfully figure out what to call me: “fire person”, “fireman woman”, “fire lady”, “you firemen and lady”. I politely respond with a smile and say “the politically correct term is firefighter”, but I answer to anything!
More Women’s History & Women in the Fire Service Information:
- Mesa Fire Department Volunteer Corps
- U.S. Fire Administration
- International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services
- The Leader’s Toolbox: Cheryl Horvath on Overcoming Challenges (Podcast)