News

This is What Change Looks Like

"Soon after I became a firefighter, a young lady, maybe 6 years old, come up to me and asked, 'Can I be a firefighter and a princess?'"

by

Have a conversation with Chief Dennis Doan about practically anything concerning the Boise Fire Department—response times, helping to deliver a newborn, Idaho's fireworks laws (or lack thereof) or the real-world drama of saving a life from a structure fire—and if you talk long enough, the topic of diversity will come up.

"We absolutely need to diversify the fire department, for so many reasons, primarily for how we relate to our community. At least for the 11 years that I've been the chief, we're starting to make gains, but it takes a long, long time, and I like to move a lot faster than that," said Doan. "I'm encouraged, but I'm also frustrated that it's not moving fast enough."

BFD has tried everything, including revisiting its promotional materials, application and testing processes, and physical requirements, but Doan knows better than anyone that it always comes down to one-on-one contact and representation. Simply put, the image of a white, male firefighter usually inspires a white, male applicant.

But then there's Dana Bergstrom.

"Soon after I became a firefighter, a young lady, maybe 6 years old, come up to me and asked, 'Can I be a firefighter and a princess?'" recalled Bergstrom. "I said, 'Sweetheart, you can be anything you want: a firefighter and a princess. You can absolutely do that.'"

Bergstrom, 31, is a prime example. Her big dream as a girl was to be a dancer on Broadway, more specifically a Radio City Rockette.

"That was my goal. I studied dance as a young girl in California and then we moved to Meridian when I was in high school. I continued to teach dance when I was in college, but then I inquired about the military. My dad was a retired Navy Commander," she said.

Bergstrom joined the U.S. Navy in 2006, which took her to Pensacola, Florida and Lemoore, California.

"When I left the military, I came home, continued my college and started working, but I really didn't have a purpose," she said.

In 2014, Bergstrom's Crossfit Coach, who happened to be a captain with the Nampa Fire Department, told her, "You would be a great firefighter."

"What? I was like... 'Ha. That would be no,'" said Bergstrom. "I was never that girl who dreamed of being a firefighter, because I never had that exposure to a female firefighter. But my brother, who is in law enforcement in California, told me, 'Honestly, I didn't know I wanted to be a cop until I did a ride-along.'"

Bergstrom's ride-along with a Nampa fire station turned into a full day of pulling hoses and climbing ladders, followed by a rare invitation.

"I was asked to stay for dinner, which is a pretty big honor," she said. "I was there for 12 straight hours."

Suffice to say, Bergstrom was inspired and began what she considers her life's true passion. Rigorous exams, academy training and a grueling run (applicants have to run 1.5 miles in less than 11.5 minutes to qualify) followed.

"I remember when I got the phone call from Chief [Brad] Bolen, with a job offer," said Bergstrom. "I had to go under a stairwell at work and scream because I was so excited. My heart dropped into my stomach and I forgot to breathe. I thought to myself, 'This is happening.'"

Upon graduation from the academy, Bergstrom underwent a year-long probation as a firefighter. As a so-called "probie," she was assigned to several fire stations across Boise, in rotations that usually lasted six weeks. She's currently a "swing" firefighter, meaning that on any given week, she could be serving at a different station. When she gains enough seniority, Bergstrom will have the opportunity to choose a permanent station assignment.

Bergstrom is one of five women in the Boise Fire Department, four of whom are firefighters.

"Just last week, I met with all five," said Doan. "It was important for me to ask, 'How's our culture? How are the facilities?'"

A rather unexpected issue surfaced during that conversation. The main concern facing the women firefighters was simple: pants. It turns out that the company that manufactures the uniforms for Boise firefighters doesn't make pants for women, leaving Boise's firefighting women wearing men's duds.

"Believe it or not, it's one of our biggest problems, because no company makes these particular uniform pants for women. So, we're going to tailor them. We're going to make sure that the uniform fits properly," said Doan. "We're going to solve it. But I have to tell you, I had a sigh of relief when I listened to the women during our meeting."

When it comes to women joining the ranks, Doan has had to deal with a lot more than pants in his 11 years as chief.

"In my first couple of months as chief, I can tell you that I fired a Boise firefighter because of the things he said about female firefighters. I told him, 'We're not going to tolerate that. You're fired,'" said Doan. "We're just not going to have that culture here. We're going to be accepting of everyone no matter their skin color, gender, religion, you name it."

Bergstrom added, "I'm not met with anything negative. When I go to work, these are my brothers. These are my sisters. We are all accepted as firefighters. Every station I walk into, every single day, when I go to work, it's, 'Hey, a firefighter's here. You know your job. I know my job. Let's get to work.'"

Tags