‘Yes, you can do that’: Women learn the ropes of fire service at weekend event

South King Fire and Rescue hosted this year’s Women in Firefighting experience event.

Dozens of women turned out for a weekend of workouts, training and camaraderie last weekend at a Women in Firefighting/EMS event in Federal Way.

Hosted by South King Fire & Rescue at Station 68, just up the street from Lakota Middle School, the women received hands-on lessons from instructors from more than dozen King County agencies and learned what to expect from a career in the fire service.

Station 68 is SKFR’s training and facilities location. It features a tall drill tower, classrooms and facilities teams that maintain the department’s vehicles.

But most of the calls the fire service handles — around 80% — are medical, such as complaints of chest pain or alcohol intoxication. Many of the lessons gave the women opportunities to practice their medical skills, too.

They blasted fire hoses, dragged prop victims from buildings, tied knots, packed wounds and even practiced uterine displacement, which can be necessary when performing CPR on a pregnant person. They also learned how to prepare for interviews, and perhaps most valuable of all, got a chance to network with other women in the fire service.

Nationwide, the fire service is made up of about 10% women, said Ann Hoag, a lieutenant at SKFR and one of the instructors.

“We feel very strongly that we serve our communities best when we reflect them,” Hoag said. “If there’s about 50 percent women [in the community] … then we really want our firefighters to reflect that.”

Despite strides in diversifying the service, firefighting is still often thought of as a man’s job, Hoag said. So, setting aside a dedicated weekend to train the women is valuable because it reaches a population with a lot of untapped potential.

And there’s value in representation, too, Hoag said: Seeing another young woman confidently pull off the job might be the inspiration for an attendee to believe they can do it, too. It’s a special moment when a young woman practices brawny, technical skills like chainsaw wielding, ladder throwing and forcible entry for the first time, Hoag said.

“The first time I used a chainsaw, I was like, ‘this is cool.’ Things like that are really cool to watch women do who have never done it before,” Hoag said. “When I give tours to younger girls, kids, in the fire station, one of the things I always show them is the chainsaw compartment.”

That’s when she sees the light bulb moment for the girls: “‘I could do that?’ Yes, you can do that.”

On Oct. 23, the women flew up flights of stairs in their gear and practiced physical exercises like planks under the watchful eyes of their instructors.

“You have to push yourself, but it’s been really amazing,” said Danielle Jenkins, one of the participants. “It’s let me know this is something I want to do, and that I can do it. But it is physically taxing. You have to be fit.”

Jenkins is an aspiring firefighter who is applying at agencies including Tacoma Fire and SKFR. She’s hopeful to become a firefighter/EMT and, eventually, a firefighter/paramedic. Currently, she is a birth-to-three coordinator who works with families at an early intervention agency.

Like many, Jenkins said she used to think of firefighting as a man’s profession, but the more she learned, the more she came to admire women in the industry — and want to join and serve herself.

And at the age of 35, Jenkins and other women at the event bucked the idea that your professional career is locked in during your twenties.

“I’ve met some really wonderful women,” she said. “Women in their mid-thirties like me, who have careers and families, who have give everything to their families, and they’re like ‘Hey, now is my turn,’ [and] younger girls, just out of college or in college. … I just want women to know that it’s never too late. Just because you’re a little older, it doesn’t mean you can’t change careers. And I want young girls to know that, maybe you don’t see a lot of women firefighters, but they are out there. And this job can absolutely be for you.”

Since the program started a few years ago, 150 women have participated, and several them have already landed professional careers at agencies across the Puget Sound. (The program rotates each time to a different hosting fire agency. )

One of those firefighter/EMTs is Marika Muesegades, who works at Puget Sound Regional Fire. She was one of the instructors at the weekend event focusing on physical fitness, and went through the program herself about four years ago.

“I love that I was in their same shoes,” Muesegades said. “I love this. It’s like a bunch of sisters. And the best thing is when you see the same faces here at interview panels, and eventually hired on.”

Women have to pull the same weight, run the same flights of stairs and chop down the same doors as the guys, Muesegades said. But there are advantages to having women teach other women, she pointed out — such as subtle differences in body mechanics that make some techniques more sensible for women than for men.

For the roughly 35 women who showed up to the challenge, the lessons that weekend were a way to test themselves.

“There’s not anywhere else you’re able to get your hands on all these things we use in the fire service,” Muesegades said. “There’s a lot of mechanical aptitude that, honestly, most women don’t usually get to learn about when they’re younger. … This is the one place where you have an entire weekend to get your hands [dirty] and figure out if you want to do this job.”

Those in the fire service often refer to it as a kind of family. You cook dinner together, respond to traumatic calls together, and learn to depend and trust on them in a heartbeat, Muesegades said.

“[We have] 300 people that will do anything for us,” she said. “It’s literally a second home. It’s your home away from home.”

SKFR is currently hiring for its February 2023 academy. Those interested can visit this link to apply: https://forms.gle/qT9sYBwnMPMDauuR9