While some little girls dream of being a ballerina or princess, Emily Whitaker dreamed of the day when she would be a firefighter.
Then, as now, most firefighters were men. While it didn’t happen right away, that didn’t deter her, and in August, she earned her black helmet, making her the only full-fledged female member of the Nevis Volunteer Fire Department.
“College, marriage, kids, divorce and moving sidelined my aspirations for awhile,” she said. “This year, my daughter Marley turned 14 and Mia is 6. My parents and sister live in town, so I have a great support network that enables me to be able to commit to going to training and calls.”
Whitaker said Trisha Dunn of Nevis is also in the process of joining the fire department and plans to go to fire academy this fall. “She had a baby and is in school full time, so that kind of slowed up the process for her,” she added.
Whitaker said she loves Nevis and wanted to serve the community.
“I love my neighbors and wanted to give back,” she said. “There’s definitely a passion for it. You have to be committed. I get so excited when the pager goes off. That’s why we’re here, to help people. And people are always so grateful. It’s a great feeling.”
Many area residents have followed Whitaker’s journey to becoming a firefighter through posts on the department’s Facebook page.
Nevis Fire Chief Chris Norton said there have been five or more females in the department over the years. There are currently 17 firefighters on the rolls, and the department welcomes more.
“The more we have, the more opportunity we have for people to show up at a fire,” he said. “If we had 30 firefighters on our roster, if half of them could come on a call you’re looking at 15. That lessens the burden on each individual to feel like they have to do it all.”
Working out and making it work
Whitaker worked out in the Nevis School gym to prepare to meet the physical demands of training.
“The grand total of what you wear and carry is close to 100 pounds – your bunker gear, helmet, boots, hoses, tools,” she said. “I watched videos on Youtube of other female firefighters who had training tips and workouts, too.”
Pulling a weighted rope across the gym hand over hand and wearing a weighted vest helped Whitaker build strength and endurance.
In January, she started her probationary period with the fire department, attending meetings and taking online courses through Central Lakes College.
“When you join the fire department, you’re on a probationary period,” Whitaker explained. “You have two years to complete your training. While in training, you wear a yellow helmet, and once you finish they honor you with your black helmet.”
Whitaker said she found ways to compensate for being smaller than most of the men by making modifications.
“I carry rock-climbing webbing in my bunker gear,” she said. “During training, we had to pull other firefighters out of a mock fire. Male participants could do it by pulling the cord on their jackets. I physically can’t pull out a 250-pound man that way, but if I put the webbing around their arms and then wrap it around my hands, I now have the physics to pull a lot heavier weight because it is distributed evenly and I can use my legs to pull versus just my upper body strength. You just have to find what works for you.”
Whitaker played softball for many years. She was also a rock-climbing instructor for the YMCA while living in New Mexico. “I did a lot of hiking and backpacking,” she said. “I’m constantly outside and being active, so that helps a lot. I took up running for the cardiovascular aspect before I went to the academy, because when you’re wearing all that gear and breathing through a respirator, it’s important to be able to control your breathing.”
Whitaker said training at Camp Ripley included only one other woman, and she was a full-time firefighter in a larger city.
While on probation, firefighters go on calls but can’t drive the truck or respond by themselves. “You are shadowed by another firefighter to make sure you’re learning what you’re supposed to be doing and safe doing it,” she said.
Whitaker said going out on calls taught her even more.
“My fellow firefighters are amazing at explaining why we do things at the scene and giving insights on what has worked for them,” she said. “The schooling and training are great to learn the fundamentals. But you really pick up your people skills, firefighting skills and critical thinking by going out on calls and participating with veteran firefighters.”
Whitaker said one example was tending to grass fires this spring.
“I pulled aside veteran firefighters and asked them to teach me what they know about doing this from a decade or more of experience,” she said. “I learned a great deal.”
Whitaker said she and other members of the department are in the process of Emergency Medical Responder training, another aspect of their job.
Nevis firefighters are always on call because it is a small department. Whitaker is a surgery scheduler at CHI St. Joseph’s in Park Rapids. Once her new firefighting gear arrives, she plans to keep her old gear in the car.
“My job is pretty good about letting me go to fires,” she said. “I respond in my personal vehicle.”
Whitaker said it is a lot of fun to drive the big, red, shiny fire truck. “I have practiced driving all of the vehicles in the fire hall with the guys,” she said. “I’ve driven on a few calls, too.”
Out of everything she has done, Whitaker said the highlight was helping put out a major grass fire that ignited a wood pile on County 18.
“It was all hands on deck, it was a very big fire,” she said. “We were really worried about the trees. If that fire had gone to the tops of those trees, it was taking off and there are residents who live back there in that neighborhood that I know personally. We worked from 5 p.m. until after midnight. It was scary, but I learned so much from that experience. The fact that we were able to contain the fire, stop it and save those homes was the best part.”
She said, after a call, there is an adrenaline rush that makes it feel like it takes forever to be able to go to sleep. “Even if your call gets cancelled, your adrenaline is up, so it takes a while to settle down,” she added.
Encouraging girls and women
Whitaker said positions on the Nevis Fire Department are open to men and women 18 and older with a valid driver’s license who complete the interview process.
“I did it, and want to encourage girls and women that they can do it, too,” she said. “Our department has been very supportive, very welcoming. I’ve been so impressed at the way they’ve taken me in. I haven’t gotten any flack for being female. It is a male-dominated field, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s no reason women can’t be firefighters. I think they almost make better firefighters because they have different ways of approaching things and problem solving that really contribute a lot to firefighting and first response.”
Whitaker said she wants children to understand from a young age that firefighting is something both girls and boys can do.
“I want to work with the schools and do more outreach,” she said. “I would also love to start an explorer program through the fire department for older teens.”
“Emily’s enjoyment for being on the department is very palpable,” Norton said. “Having folks who are excited to be here really brings up department morale. It’s been awesome to see these new folks, Emily included, take ownership in the department and make their mark on it. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on her joining and hope it will drive more people, including females, to come out. This isn’t a job that only guys can do.”
Whitaker said her daughters have cheered her on during her journey to become a firefighter. “Marley is very encouraging,” she said. “She likes to take pictures of me in my gear, and Mia thinks it’s exciting to have a mom who is a firefighter.”