Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Women in menís business

The first female career firefighter in the valley and the most recent on working in a manís world


Ketchum Fire Department engineer Annie Stout Leady and fellow female firefighter Lt. Lara McLean battle a garage fire in Ketchum in 2007. Photo by Willy Cook

When your house is on fire, or your husband is having a heart attack, the last thing you really care about is the gender of the person carrying the hose or administering CPR, as long as someone does.

"Gender is a non-factor," Ketchum firefighter/paramedic Annie Stout Leady said. "You all have the same job and same task and you're going to do it together. The question is, do you want to do it and are you ready for the job?"

It took many decades, but today women who fight fires are part of the team.

"You put on your turnouts and you go and do the same thing as everybody else," Leady said.

According to International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Service (iWomen), 6,200 women currently work as full-time, career firefighters and officers in the United States, and an estimated 40,000 are in the volunteer fire service. Twenty-four fire departments have women as their top-level chief. But it wasn't until 1973 that a woman, Sandra Forcier, was actually paid as a full-time member of a fire department. She went on to become battalion chief.

Nineteen years later, at age 47, Terry Thompson of Hailey was the first full-time female firefighter/paramedic to be hired in Blaine County, and one of the first in the state of Idaho. While a survey conducted by iWomen found that 85 percent of women firefighters said they experienced different treatment because of their gender, Thompson says she never felt singled out or mistreated due to gender.

"I never felt I was thought of badly because I was a woman," she said. "But it's Shangri La here as far as that's concerned, especially compared to other departments in Idaho."

Born in London, England, Thompson and her husband, Michael Burke, moved to the Wood River Valley in 1976. Ten years later, as she was searching for a new career, she heard a piece on the radio about an Emergency Medical Technician training class.

"It sounded interesting," she said, with a smile.

One can easily imagine her showing up for the first class with a bit of British insouciance. The instructor was Dennis Patterson, now fire chief for the city of Carey. That was probably her first clue that she was heading down a very different path from her former job as a Pan Am flight attendant.

After graduating, she landed a volunteer role with the Blaine County Ambulance District (which later merged with Wood River Rural Fire Department to become Wood River Fire & Rescue). In those days, volunteer emergency personnel were not paid, so she looked for other ways to supplement her valley lifestyle.

"Ketchum Comm (then the north valley emergency dispatch center) was hiring," she said. "So I applied for a paid job with them. In those days you had to carry a pager if you were a dispatcher, so I said, 'Why don't I be a volunteer for the Ketchum Fire Department, too?'"

She had intended to volunteer as an EMT but the powers-that-be told her she would have to be a firefighter as well.

In 1988, within a year of hearing that radio ad, she was a full-time dispatcher and a fully trained volunteer firefighter/EMT with the Ketchum Fire Department and the Blaine County Ambulance District. But the glass ceiling was still intact. No department in the valley had yet hired a woman to be a career firefighter.

Four years later, she smashed through that glass.

"I tested four times to get on the department," she said. "I got the job on the fourth attempt. I was thrilled, but, honestly, I didn't think about the fact that I was the first woman."

There was one moment, though.

"The day they were going to announce who the hire was, I had already been told by the chief, but no one else knew. I was at the station standing chatting with two of the other (male) full-timers. They were discussing who it might be, going through the list. They went over everyone but me. It was clear that they hadn't thought in a million years it would be me!"

Listening to Thompson reminisce about her years of service, Annie Stout Leady, the most recent woman in Blaine County to be hired as a career firefighter, has a lot to thank her for.

"I do feel the way was paved nicely before I showed up," said the eight-year veteran, who was hired full-time in 2007. "And it continues to be."

Hired in 1992, Terry Thompson, right, was the first career female firefighter to be hired in Blaine County. Annie Stout Leady, left, is the most recent, she was hired in 2007. Express photo by Jennifer Tuohy

Leady came to fire by a similarly roundabout way. A theater major at Boulder, Colo., she "got a bug" to go to massage school. While training, she discovered that she had switched from "right-brain to left-brain and gotten into the science of it all."

Theater and massage went out the window and she took off to pursue a career in search and rescue, moving to the Wood River Valley in 2001 for a job with the Sun Valley Ski Patrol.

"I found out shortly after moving here that in order to get into EMS (the ticket into rescue) I had to join the fire department. I never saw myself going that way until it became the path I had to take."

Within a few months, she was a fully trained volunteer with the Sun Valley Fire Department, and in 2003 gained her EMT qualification. A year later, a full-time position opened on the Ketchum Fire Department. She competed in a field of five volunteers (three men, two women) to become the first non paramedic hired on the combined fire and medical department (she qualified as a paramedic shortly after).

Both women agree that no matter the nearly 20-year difference in their experience, becoming a firefighter, in whatever degree, is a huge commitment. Besides classes, drills and testing there is the actual work, which invariably falls on weekends and in the middle of the night.

But there is a unique camaraderie between the female firefighters.

"It starts from the day they decide to join," said Leady, whose department leads the way in firefighter equality in the valley (a third of its staff are women). "Now I'm in a more senior role, they look to you for direction. 'I'm joining a man's world—how can I fit in and still be a woman?' We don't all have to be butch to be good at this job.

"The most 'grueling' physical aspect is probably humping 200 foot of charged two-and-a-half-inch hose into an interior structure, especially if you have to go up the stairs and around the corner."

But generally, the physical aspect is something Leady enjoys—it's part of the job.

"There are so many things that require your full physical strength, including being able to rescue your shift partner when the time comes. We train hard on that. My shift partners both weigh over 200 pounds."

Leady is currently facing a uniquely female challenge. She is expecting her first baby this June.

"It's all been really positive," she said. "And I say that with shock in my voice. I kind of expected to get the rolling of eyes and it really hasn't happened. You have to do the job that you signed up for that day. When the pager goes off, you're committed."

But in mid-March, the six-months pregnant Leady took a step back.

"As of today, I have to decided that I'm no longer willing to pump extrication equipment or pick up a 250-pound dude."

Beyond the physical challenges, it is the chance to help people that drew these women to the job.

"I couldn't get enough of it," Thompson said. "They are so thankful to see us. It made you feel good about yourself. I remember walking down the street after I'd been through training and thinking, 'Wow. If something happened I'd know what to do.'"

Terry Thompson and fellow former Wood River Fire & Rescue captain/paramedic Shane Quarles train on assisting a patient’s breathing in one of the combined fire and medical department’s three ambulances. Photo courtesy ESS

It's in this vein that there is one major advantage to being a female firefighter/paramedic.

"That female, motherly instinct can make you more sensitive to what people are going through in the tough times you usually meet them in," Leady said. "For example, when you have a 19-year-old female in a domestic abuse situation, having a female medic step in can be a world of difference."

Thompson retired from Wood River Fire & Rescue as a captain/paramedic in 2006.

"I just didn't feel good enough anymore," she said. "Now I work part-time at St. Luke's in the emergency room as a technician."

She admits to still having and listening to a scanner.

"These people are still in my heart. I see the firefighter/paramedics in the hospital when they bring people in," she said.

Does she miss it, though?

"I have quite easily let it go."

There are currently three full-time and two volunteer female firefighter/paramedics in the valley. Blaine County as a whole employs three women full-time and 30 women as volunteers.

"To a certain degree, society still teaches us that we are the daintier gender," Leady said. "But the numbers (of female firefighters) in this valley proves that we are just as capable of doing anything men can. You just have to want it."

—Additional reporting by Jennifer Tuohy

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