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Into the Fire

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

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"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."