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Women boost volunteer departments

Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013 2:00 p.m. CDT
Caption
In this Feb. 15, 2013 photo, Lincoln Rural Fire & Rescue firefighter KaCey Noe poses for a portrait at the company's 21st St. station house in Lincoln. Noe was recently named the department's volunteer firefighter of the year. Noe is part of a growing trend in which more women are volunteering to be firefighters, a physically demanding, traditionally male-dominated endeavor. (AP Photo/The State Journal-Register, David Spencer)

LINCOLN (AP) — KaCey Noe's first attempt at proving she had what it took physically to be a firefighter didn't work out the way she planned.

Neither did the second attempt.

It took Noe three attempts, one after the next, to complete the Lincoln Rural Fire Department's physical agility test — a rigorous challenge that involves such tasks as pulling water-filled fire hoses up stairs and dragging a 170-pound dummy — that everyone must pass to become a firefighter.

Here's the thing: many men give up after the first or second try, it's so physically and emotionally draining. Noe had the stamina to keep going until she succeeded. And that, in the eyes of her colleagues, was evidence that she was firefighter material.

"She absolutely persisted. She was not giving up," said Chad Letterle, chief of the Lincoln Rural Fire Protection District. "Her determination was amazing. Emotionally and physically she was spent, but she just wouldn't give up. That really stuck with the guys."

That's why her colleagues — a mix of full-timers, part-timers and volunteers — nominated her for the department's Volunteer Firefighter of the Year award, which the rookie won in January.

Noe is part of a growing trend in which more women are volunteering to be firefighters, a physically demanding, traditionally male-dominated endeavor.

They're a welcome addition, in particular, to rural departments, which struggle to recruit volunteers in an age when people are over-scheduled and less willing to commit to the rigors of being firefighters.

"The door is open. I think women think they may not play a role in fire service, but they do," said John Swan, president of the Illinois Firefighters Association and chief of the volunteer fire department in Colona, near the Quad-Cities.

"The volunteer fire service around this state is really in a dire need of maintaining its staffing for volunteers in these communities. We're getting less and less every year because of the time commitment and the economic conditions where both people (in a household) are working, and not just everybody can be a firefighter, including men."

It's unknown exactly how many firefighters there are in Illinois, let alone women firefighters, Swan said. Departments aren't required to file reports with the state, and no one else really keeps tabs. Swan's association believes about 70 percent of departments in Illinois are volunteer and estimates there are between 42,000 and 46,000 firefighters in the state.

Both he and Letterle believe the number of women firefighters on rural volunteer departments has spiked in the last five to 10 years.

"I think the departments are reaching out and trying to find other resources, and women are good ones to do it," Swan said. "If they're home, especially in the daytime, and able to serve in their communities, that door will be open. That's something that's got a lot of merit."

She gets mixed reactions from the public on calls.

"Sometimes, yes, there are people who gravitate toward me. And also there are the ones who gravitate away," she said.

"Some of them honestly don't recognize that I am a firefighter, that I am a legit member of this department. They probably have in their minds that I'm just a firefighter's girlfriend. I get that a lot. I'll wear a department shirt, and they'll say, 'Oh, your boyfriend is on the department?' And I'll say, 'No, it's me.'"

Noe was wearing a dress and high-heeled shoes and helping a friend DJ a wedding when she was summoned to her first fire call. She had no choice but to chuck the shoes aside and put the gear on over her dress, she said with a laugh.

That fire was a false alarm. Her first actual fire call was in the fall, when a home caught fire. It was a blaze that required mutual aid from additional departments. The woman who lived inside got out uninjured.

"Her family ended up coming up, and that's one of the times that I really felt like I had helped and been a part of something that was just amazing," Noe said. "

Olivia Griesheim, 19, is a volunteer firefighter in Elkhart, a town of about 450 in Logan County. The nursing student and part-time waitress approached the fire chief two years ago. She thought her nursing studies would be a help to the volunteer department's rescue squad.

Instead, the chief persuaded her to become a firefighter.

"He told me, 'We're not pressuring you into doing firefighting if it's something you don't feel comfortable with, but it's something we'd be very willing to teach you to do and make you feel comfortable around it. We could use you,'" she recalled.

Griesheim agreed and since has taken on additional duties, including putting her scuba-diving skills to use as a diver for a rescue team and becoming an officer with the Logan County Fire Protection Association.

Griesheim, who carries a pink fire pager, said one of the things she enjoys about firefighting in a small town is that, once she helps someone with a crisis, she can continue to check in on them in the days and weeks that follow.

That's not to say the job isn't without challenges.

Letterle agreed.

"Back in the days when I first started, it was basically a boys' club for a lot of volunteer departments. I have noticed a lot more females in the fire service, period," he said. "And I've done some classes with some of them, and there's no difference. They're just as down and dirty as the guys can be. They can do the job."

Noe is the only woman firefighter with her department, although there are women EMTs. Her journey to becoming a firefighter started in 2011 when she applied to be an EMT, but then decided to become a certified firefighter, too. She's been with the department since June, and she and Letterle expect she'll be a certified firefighter by summer. She already has her EMT certification.

Noe, a 911 dispatcher, is 5 feet, 6 inches tall and weighs 120 pounds. The equipment firefighters must wear to calls weighs about 70 pounds. No matter. It's part of the job — as are getting dirty, going to sometimes dramatic and difficult scenes, rolling fire hose, cleaning trucks, being awakened in the middle of the night and missing family events.

"I kind of made a promise to myself that if I can't do this, I don't want to be passed along. I don't want to have extra assistance. If I can't make the requirements, I don't want to be put on (the squad)," Noe said.

The other firefighters support her, she said.

"There are times we're doing a training and it's something difficult that just takes brute strength, and I'll struggle with it. They'll say, 'Come on, you can do it, you know you can do it,'" she said. "They'll push me along and finally I'll muster the strength and get through it. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say you can't do it or why are you wasting your time. It's quite the opposite."

"The hardest thing for me is whenever I have work and school and those late calls that you're up all night on," she said. "Sometimes you'll be in bed and hear your pager go off and say, 'Ugh, I don't want to get up.' But it's one night, and it is your responsibility, and there is somebody out there who needs you."

She said she would encourage any women who are curious about firefighting to go to their nearest fire department and talk to someone.

"Sometimes, when you're younger or a woman (victim), having some big, burly man come up to you in his gear can be intimidating. As a girl, they feel more comfortable around me, so even if it's just bringing that to the department, that can make a world of difference to a person who is in crisis at the moment," Griesheim said.

"I absolutely love what I do, and there are many women out there who would enjoy doing this as well."

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Online: The (Springfield) State Journal-Register, http://bit.ly/WVwdIB

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Information from: The State Journal-Register, http://www.sj-r.com

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