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Into the Fire

Fire agencies have a burning desire to recruit females, with little luck

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At work, Molly Leadbetter rappels out of helicopters. She carries a pack weighing nearly 119 pounds (around five pounds less than Molly herself). She walks into wildfires and when she gets there, the 25-year-old spends 16 hours digging trenches, clearing fuels and containing fires burning thousands of acres of Idaho wilderness. She is, by definition, a bad ass.

"It gets hot," Leadbetter said. "You're next to the fire, you're sucking in smoke, burning your eyebrows digging a hot line. Suddenly, I'm like, 'Why do my ears hurt so bad?' My earrings get really hot."

Molly and her 27-year-old sister, Kate, have worked on wildland fire crews for six and seven years, respectively. They've fought fires across the West and work a grueling schedule of 14 days on, two days off, throughout the summer.

They're used to being outnumbered by men—usually at a 10-1 ratio—and they've both been the only woman on their crews.

Molly and Kate both said they are surrounded by women who are physically strong enough to tackle wildland firefighting, yet have seen a decline in the number of women in their field. It's a problem fire agencies across the country, from wildland firefighting organizations to city fire departments, are dealing with.

"I think, initially, a lot of women are like I was: They think they're not fit enough or don't think they can do it," Molly said. "I tell every girl, 'You could do fire.'"

The Leadbetter sisters grew up in a family of fire. Both of their parents fought wildland fires and at age 19, Kate continued the tradition. She was a slight 120 pounds and an athlete in high school. She had done some trail crew work but nothing like the physical endurance fighting fire requires.

Kate's first fire flared up in Utah and moved fast.

"I jumped out of the truck, and I had this big heavy pack on, and I almost collapsed," she said. "We call it 'yard sale-ing,' when your stuff is flying everywhere, and you're trying to pick it up ... and you're trying to do your job, and you've forgotten your tool. That's when I realized I needed to change my training regimen to be more than running."

Molly fought her first fire two years after Kate's.

"Kate told me for, like, three years that I wasn't physically fit enough to fight fire," Molly said. "Then I was looking for a job, having no idea what to do and finally my mom was like, 'Molly, you can do fire. Don't listen to Kate; you'll be fine.'"

When 25-year-old Molly Leadbetter goes to work, she repels out of helicopters. - COURTESY OF MOLLY LEADBETTER
  • Courtesy of Molly Leadbetter
  • When 25-year-old Molly Leadbetter goes to work, she repels out of helicopters.

Today, Molly works for the Payette National Forest based out of New Meadows. Her heli-attack crew travels all around the West and she works alongside two other women. Kate, in her first summer away from fires in seven years, is working in Boise as an arborist. The sisters work six months a year and devote their off-time to staying in shape.

"Especially for women, you really have to train because you don't want to be the slowest person on the crew," said Kate, who has worked for various hot shot crews in Alaska, Colorado, Utah and Idaho. In the off-season, she exercised two hours per day, six days per week. Her workout included cardio, weights, circuit training and long runs. Even on vacations to Mexico and Cuba, Kate did her daily sit-ups and push-ups.

It paid off when she hiked the long, steep, shadeless mountains of the Salmon-Challis National Forest clearing brush to slow forest fires.

"I would never admit that something was hard because I was on a hot shot crew," Kate said.

Wildland firefighting is a lifestyle as much as a job, and it comes with added pressures for women, which includes living with as many as 25 men for an entire summer. Everyone is tired and no one has taken a shower in weeks. There's not much to do around the camps except sleep and talk.

"Everything is very out in the open," Kate said. "You dig a latrine and go to the bathroom in the same place. Everyone's just wildly dirty. It doesn't bother me."

While the living conditions can be grubby and the talk can be less than polite—"Think of the most disgusting thing you've ever heard a guy say, times 14—and 24/7," Molly said—the camaraderie is often as fierce as the fires.

"I think the more miserable fires, the better it bonds you," Kate said. "There's something really gratifying about the physical work because these days, there's so many office jobs and not so many opportunities to be out in the field, working with the land. Out there, you're doing something and actually seeing the product of your work."

Trial and Error

Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan has devoted the past eight years to diversifying his department. He is passionate about getting more women on the city's firefighter force, but he calls those efforts "frustrating" and "challenging."

The Boise Fire Department has 268 firefighters: only one is a woman. At its peak, the department employed four women, but they either retired or left. The first female firefighter for the Boise Fire Department wasn't even hired until 1993. It's a gender makeup reflected in the national average. Doan said about 2.5 percent of city firefighters nationwide are women.

"We've put a lot of time into it, but it takes a long time to turn the tide," he said.

Going through the process to become a firefighter is strenuous. First, there is a written test made up of 100 questions about personality, math, mechanics and English. The test has nothing to do with firefighting but candidates need to score at least 99 percent to move on to the oral exam, which is an interview by a panel of firefighters. They ask why applicants want to be firefighters and what would make them good at it. They watch for certain character traits and look for a strong work ethic.

The process used to include a physical test, but Doan eliminated it in an effort to make recruitment easier.

"When I took the test 26 years ago, it was a lot different," he said. "There was this dummy that was, like, 175 pounds. You had to pick it up, throw it over your shoulder, and run up five flights of stairs and down five flights of stairs. We looked at that and we said, 'How often do you pick somebody up and throw them over your shoulder and run up and down stairs?' Like, zero. We work in teams. You don't carry them over your shoulder because the smoke and hot gases are up high."

After the original physical test was phased out, the Boise Fire Department introduced a more realistic test, which included pulling a dummy to safety, dragging a hose around a corner, crawling through a box and using a sledge hammer to hit a target.

"Then we said, 'Why do we even need that?' Doan said. The second test was dropped, too.

After an aspiring firefighter passes both the written and oral exams, he or she undergoes an FBI background check and visits the fire department doctor for a physical exam to test overall strength, lung capacity and heart condition.

"If you met the minimum medical standards, we would hire you," Doan said.

The process is long and competitive. The written test is offered only every two years and hundreds of hopefuls turn out for a limited number of positions. If an applicant makes it through the testing, he or she is added to a list. When someone from the force retires, the first person on the list is hired.

"[The lack of women] is hurting our department and it's hurting our community" –Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan

In the meantime, Doan is doing everything he can think of to create a more inviting atmosphere for women. In the past few years, he has offered mentorships to women interested in the field and hosted a two-day academy at which 20 women learned more about the job.

"Only a couple of those took the test," Doan said. "You can see our struggle. We got 20 women in there, then, last March, we tested 604 individuals, and four of those were women."

Doan said it isn't a matter of women not being capable of doing the job. They're not getting tripped up by the physical requirements or training. He said most women simply don't consider becoming firefighters.

"We're swimming upstream," Doan said. "We need females on our engines so that little girls look up to and see a girl on the fire engine and say, 'That's what I want to be.' Right now, when we go to schools, they see a white male. Even though we tell them they can be firefighters, that little girl still sees a white male on the fire engine."

Kate Leadbetter said she has interest in joining the Boise Fire Department, but while it involves fire, it's a completely different profession. She said wildland firefighters usually receive no training in fighting structure fires, and few certifications carry over.

"They both say the word 'fire,' and that's pretty much where it ends," Molly added.

"I disagree with that statement," Doan said. "If I have female wildland firefighter saying that's the only similarity, then we haven't done a good job letting them know what being a firefighter is about."

The similarities, according to Doan include the chain-of-command structure and the emphasis on teamwork. Boise Fire Department also has brush trucks, since it must defend the wildland-urban interface.

Doan thinks it could take more than a generation before the gender gap in his department starts to narrow, but he plans to continue striving to get more women on the force.

"When we have an engine go out on a call, our community is not all white males, right?" he said. "We need to be able to relate to them. [The lack of women] is hurting our department and it's hurting our community. We really have to focus on this."

'There's Only One of Me'

Ashley Rosenbaum is the only woman firefighter on the Boise Fire Department, and people notice.

"Every time I go to the grocery store on duty, people whip their heads around," she said. "They don't see females working as firefighters, so they're surprised to see a girl walking through the store."

Little girls ask Ashley Rosenbaum, Boise Fire's only female firefighter, if she's allowed to wear makeup on the job. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Little girls ask Ashley Rosenbaum, Boise Fire's only female firefighter, if she's allowed to wear makeup on the job.

Rosenbaum joined BFD in 2007, but before she started testing in 2005, she never imagined she'd become a firefighter. She grew up in Eagle, graduated from high school and attended Boise State University, where she studied health promotion. It was only while working as a bartender at Texas Roadhouse that the thought of becoming a firefighter occurred to her.

"A training captain would come into the restaurant pretty often and started talking to me about firefighting. I kind of blew him off," she said. "I had my own thing going on."

Then one of the guys she worked with started the testing process and her interest was piqued. The captain talked her into coming down to the training facility, where they put her in firefighter turnouts and let her pull the hose up the tower. She worked with extraction tools and fell in love.

"This is awesome," she told them. "Sign me up."

Two years and four or five tests later, Rosenbaum was on the job with BFD. Now she balances her full-time job with three children at home—a 5-year-old, a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old. Rosenbaum's husband is also a firefighter with the Eagle Fire Department. They each spend 10 days a month working, 10 days a month taking care of the kids on their own and 10 days a month at home together. She often has to wait until after 8 p.m.—when all the kids are in bed—to tackle her daily workout.

"For 10 days, I'm like a single mom," she said, "but for 10 days, he's a single dad, too."

Her shifts are 48 hours at a time, with 96 hours off in between. Still, Rosenbaum rarely gets to fight fire. Most calls the department respond to are medical emergencies. Her last fire was a car fire almost a month ago. She can't remember the last time she fought a structure fire. In the meantime, she keeps herself busy on the hazmat and airport teams.

Rosenbaum said her time with Boise Fire Department has been fulfilling, despite being the only woman in the ranks.

"I've never had anything negative," she said. "I felt a little more pressure because I'm a female, but it wasn't anything that anyone else put on me. It was more self-imposed. I think being a female, being the only one, you represent everybody. If you're male, it's like, 'Well that guy can't do the job.' If I can't do the job, it's more like, 'Oh, she can't do the job,' and it correlates to me being a female."

Her biggest beefs are with ill-fitting equipment and clothes. The uniforms are made for men, which means the crotch in her turnouts sags and the jacket practically engulfs her.

Her other concern comes from fire station accommodations—something Doan has committed to fixing.

"When I first started, the fire house had a large dormitory with one bathroom and one big shower," Doan said.

"Some stations are still just a big dorm," Rosenbaum said. "There are curtains so you have privacy, but it's an open area and I know some men don't feel super comfortable having a female in the room. I'm sure my husband doesn't really love it either."

The fire bond that passed in November 2014 aims to fix the problem. All new stations are built with individual rooms and separate, gender-specific bathrooms. Older stations around town are being renovated to match.

"Most of it accommodates me," Rosenbaum said. "There's only one me."

That's something Rosenbaum would like to see change. She said she tries to recruit women all the time, but they don't see that they can do the job—a job Rosenbaum plans to retire from.

"I didn't grow up seeing women on a firetruck," she said. "There's not enough of me. I need more females."

Barriers

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While more women gravitate toward wildland firefighting, the challenges for women in the field go beyond strength and hard work.

Kate Leadbetter said she has observed a fundamental difference in the way men and women communicate, and she suspects not having the same confident swagger held her back from promotions.

Molly Leadbetter said most of the crews she's worked on haven't had a hint of sexism, but it's not unheard of among wildland firefighters.

"I think there's a lot of crews that are making really big strides in creating an environment that's healthy for everyone," Molly said. "Then there are some crews that are sliding backwards and stuck in the past. There's some crews where if you make one mistake—a mistake anyone would make—they judge you much more harshly."

Kate was hesitant to talk about gender barriers in her career, but Molly jumped in to put a fine point on the issue.

"[Kate has] had to work twice as hard to get an average amount of praise," Molly said. "If she was a guy working as hard as she was working, she would have gone a lot farther."

They both agreed that Kate should have been promoted to positions that work with chainsaws, which usually go to the largest, fittest men.

"She met every requirement that should have put her on saw and it didn't," Molly said. "Because they're like, 'You're just this little slip of a thing, you can't do it.' Instead it's like, 'No, we're going to get this big dude with a beard to do it.'"

"Even though he can't make it up the hill and I can," Kate added. "I've kicked those biggest, fittest dudes' asses."