More women are breaking into firefighting — a traditionally male-dominated industry — and they are doing it in a big way in Madras.
Half the Jefferson County Fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Department staff are women.
“We get a lot of calls in the middle of the night. Last shift, I don’t think we got five consecutive hours of sleep. Some shifts are really hard. It takes your entire four days to recover from it,” said firefighter and paramedic Jessica Haury.
“We get to do a little bit of everything. From fires, to NVCs, to medical, to just people having a bad day and they need someone to talk to. It’s not always the hero stuff you see on TV. It’s pretty simple like talking to someone, validating their concerns, hearing them out. It’s pretty cool,” said firefighter and EMT Kathryn Fry.
“I’ve been in firefighting about five years now. I actually started when I was still in school. I’ve been employed and working here for about a year. I started working over at EMS before we merged.” said firefighter and EMT Lauren Melka.
The recent merger of what were separate fire and emergency medical service districts accounts for much of the sudden spike of women.
But it’s more than that. One woman’s success has led to more women joining the team.
“About five years ago, I did a woman’s firefighting camp over in the valley,” said student intern Lauren Davis. “Believe it or not, I’d never seen a woman firefighter before that point. And then I suddenly see myself surrounded by all these strong, powerful women and it really opened my eyes to the world that was sitting before me. I fell in love with it. And from then on, it fell in place. I wanted to go to Central Oregon, so I went there. I found COCC and then I found Jefferson County.”
We got to meet seven of Jefferson County’s female firefighters for this story. This group alone represents one-third of the paid workforce.
“We lucked out with the circumstances of how we came together,” said Haury. “Not only was that noticed, but other women seeing how many we had attracted other women. I certainly recruited the strong ones that I know of. I think that the huge part is the optics of it. I have a neighbor kid who said ‘I didn’t know women could be firefighters.’ So, just seeing it, I think you are going to have a lot more women believing that they can do it as well.”
In the latest round of hiring, three women were chosen. Chief Jeff Blake says they were the most qualified of 35 applicants.
“It’s just more representative of the community,” said Blake. “When you have Hispanic firefighters and Native American firefighters and women, you are representing your community. I think that’s probably the best thing and the most positive thing is representing the community. It’s a proud moment when you can take advantage of that, no matter how you get there.”
“I got into this because of the excitement and my love for medicine as well as fighting fire. I continue to do this because of the community and sense of family and the overall love of doing the job,” said firefighter and paramedic Kayla Page.
This sudden burst of equality brings challenges.
The station needs more dorm rooms, showers and restrooms for the larger, more diverse staff that work here. Chief Blake is leading a plan to expand the fire station and do it within existing budgets to make room for diversity in the ranks.
“There’s a lot of good interaction among the female firefighters and among the shifts and everyone in the organization,” said Blake.
Jefferson County firefighters respond to an average of 11 calls per day, 24 hours per day, seven days a week.
About 85% of the calls are medical emergencies. The rest are fires, traumatizing events for those who suffer them and those who try to help.
“These people, you come to them at the worst points in their lives. They’ve lost their husbands, their house, everything they have, and they are just so happy to see you,” said Lt. Heidi Hagman with Jefferson County Fire and EMS. “They have faith that you are going to help the situation. There’s a big part of that that speaks to my heart because I was there.”
All staff at Jefferson County Fire and EMS are Firefighter One certified. All personnel are now working on apparatus operator certification.