Female firefighters juggle jobs, families, studies for community
If a glass ceiling of gender inequality still exists, five Nevis moms have taken a pickaxe to it, shattering it to smithereens.
Lorraine Johnson, Sue Annexstad, Colleen Clemen, Heather Umthun and Lisa Kamrowski make up 30 percent of the Nevis Fire Department, also known as Fire & Rescue.
No other volunteer fire department in the region has such a showing of gender equality. Neither Park Rapids nor Akeley have women on their fire departments, although some towns have female First Responders.
Nevis thinks it's no big deal.
"I'm sure in the beginning there was probably some of that," fire chief Kerry Swenson said, referring to male resentment. That's long passed.
Lorraine has been on the department since 1988, one of three married firefighting couples. Heather and Colleen also have husbands on the squad.
All five women say they joined to serve their small community of 300.
"I wanted to give back, to get involved in the community," Lisa said. She joined the volunteer force in July. She barely weighs twice what her turnout gear weighs.
They are moms, nurses and students. They leave their families, sometimes their jobs, their studies and their outside lives to throw on their flame-retardant uniforms and boots and lug hoses, ladders and gear to fire scenes.
"They apply," Swenson said of the abundance of women on his 17-member squad. "They're willing and want to put in the commitment. They showed interest and we helped them move forward with that interest."
It's no small commitment. The firefighting basic training, which Lisa will begin next month, is a minimum of 110 hours. Because the squad also requires First Responder training, that's another 40 hours. If the women want to become certified Emergency Medical Technicians, that's another 120 hours.
Then there are the monthly business meetings, followed by a three-hour training session.
The only concession to gender is that the fundraising arm of the volunteers has been renamed.
It's called the Nevis Firepersons Relief Association. Lorraine is the current president.
She conducts a businesslike meeting, stopping only once to revert to Mom mode.
"Do you need to go out and come back in again?" she asks a crabby compatriot. He is chastened and adjusts his mood.
Through Nevis' gaming operations and meat raffles, the relief association spent the December meeting playing Santa, doling out $5,000 to local charities, churches and the Hubbard County Food Shelf. By law the association must give 30 percent of its proceeds annually to charity.
The squad takes pride in the fact that, through grants and fundraising efforts, the shiny fire trucks, equipment and gear are all paid for. It also receives funds from Nevis and the townships of Crow Wing, Thorpe and Mantrap it provides fire protection services to.
For Lorraine, who remembers taking her basic courses in Park Rapids with a roomful of inquisitive men, her firefighting career began with a safety quest.
She was home, living near a major highway, off a lake, with four small kids.
"If something happened I wanted to know what to do," she recalled. She began with the First Responders basic course, then was asked by the prior Nevis fire chief if she'd be interested in joining the firefighters.
In those days, firefighters selected members of their squad through a system of marbles thrown into a hat. White marbles meant you're in; black meant go away.
Lorraine made her pitch to the group.
"They said, 'Sure, why not?'" she recalled. She joined; the marble system was retired.
For Colleen, a three-year veteran, it was something she always wanted to do. Also the mother of four, she learned she was pregnant shortly after beginning her training.
"The only thing I couldn't do was the live burn," she said. She gave birth and completed her training.
"I have a 2- and 3-year-old at home," she said, looking around the fire hall. "This is easier," she added with a laugh."
Heather, a 12-year veteran and Sue, a two-year veteran, were interested in the medical aspects of emergency response. Heather's a nurse at St. Joseph's in Park Rapids, Sue is studying to be a nurse.
"Heather's got a really hectic schedule," Swenson said. "She's got her job and two kids she runs all over the place," he said, proud of the way all five women juggle kids and their firefighting careers.
Colleen's 16-year-old son watches the younger kids or her mother rushes over when she needs to leave for a fire.
Sue, a former Akeley First Responder, overcame some fears to join the squad and was encouraged by her fellow firefighters during ladder training.
"I'm afraid of heights," she confessed.
"But you did great," Swenson and fellow firefighter Ron Leyba said. "All you needed was a little encouragement."
Sue and Leyba are particularly close. Both are displaced workers who have gone back to college. They discuss career changes and school.
"They can do anything we can do," Leyba said at one fire scene after the women helped him lug a heavy ladder and other equipment onto the truck.
They perform vehicle extrication, attend burn training and state sponsored schools to train more.
Leyba trusts the women's skill levels.
"I have to leave my life in their hands," he pointed out.
At the December monthly meeting, the squad divided. Some remained in the business meeting; Sue went with other firefighters to help with cold water rescue training. Heather came after her nursing shift was over.
There's an easy camaraderie on the squad between the men and women.
Only one hint of favoritism creeps in when Colleen gives husband Jermey a peck on the cheek as he heads toward the icy lake.
"They all fit a niche and fill that niche well," Swenson said. "They are a big asset to our department."