ZEIGLER (AP) – Kathie Flowers initially lacked the courage to follow a dream.
The Franklin County woman first contemplated a tenure in public service in the mid-1990s, but fear of the unknown – anxiety about her own abilities and the perceptions of others – kept her from pushing forward.
Finally, in 1999, she overcame self-doubt and signed up as a volunteer with the Zeigler Fire Department. In the nearly 15 years that followed, she learned the skills of the job and the irrelevancy of gender as she climbed the ranks to captain, the department’s third-highest position.
“They treat me as one of the guys, and that’s what I want,” Flowers said. “I don’t want to be treated differently because I’m a female.”
Flowers learned quickly just how strenuous and demanding the role of a firefighter can be, especially when balancing it with a full-time career. The routine takes both a physical and mental toll, and there are no breaks.
“You have to pull your own weight, especially on fire scenes you’re working,” she said. “On the fire scene, there’s a job for everybody. If something isn’t right for one person, there’s something else they can do.”
Flowers isn’t alone. More women than ever are signing up for service with their local fire departments and agencies, she said. Of about 20 volunteers on the Zeigler roster, five are female.
Flowers joined the force during a period of department turnover, and the new team has grown into a strong brotherhood – and sisterhood – she said. They train and work together as a team and a family, because in the field, they literally place their lives in each others’ hands.
While there are misconceptions about volunteer departments, each firefighter is required to undergo the same certifications and training as full-time employees of departments in larger cities.
Despite the hard work and the rigorous schedule – balancing a full-time job as a registered nurse at Hospice of Southern Illinois, where she’s been employed for 5 years, and a home life with department duties – Flowers said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The best part is that feeling you get when you know you’re helping people in their time of need,” she said. “We’re helping people almost every day.”
Flowers also has a message of encouragement for those who hesitate to follow their own dreams, no matter their gender.
“Go for it,” she said. “I really wish I would have done it earlier in life. If they really want to go for it, that’s what they need to do.”
Online: The (Carbdondale) Southern Illinoisan, http://bit.ly/1oVq8aX
Information from: Southern Illinoisan, http://www.southernillinoisan.com
This is an Illinois Exchange story shared by The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan.