Guestposting: Lighting a Fire

I saw on twitter the other day that Beth was readying to fight for her right to participate with her town’s volunteer fire fighters, as she had done previously in Oregon. She had mentioned in my comments, on a post about inequality, that she was facing discrimination of her own, in a situation she had never anticipated… seeing as how it’s the year 2012 and that shit is ridiculous. I asked if she would share her story, hoping that it inspires the rest of us who experience small moments of sexism to stand up for ourselves and not let it slide, and also cheer on those who are fighting bigger, riskier fights that will make our daughter’s worlds better. I’m incredibly honored to have her writing here, and Beth is now one of the bravest people I know.

“Chief wants to know if you’d be interested in going through academy.” I’m pretty sure I looked at F. like he had two heads. Then I burst into tears. I was alternately overwhelmed by the idea and fascinated that someone would give someone like me a chance.

I overcame my initial fears and tears about being a firefighter to whole-heartedly embrace fire academy, to push myself to haul hose, climb ladders, and don an SCBA as well as any man in the class—and I succeeded. I came home from academy tired but happy. The following months found me wielding a chainsaw on the roof of a house with a smoldering fire in the ceiling, responding on medical calls, and manning a hose line with F. on a toaster fire. When I finished grad school and we moved away from the department that had given me a chance to discover something about myself, I had no doubt that I would again be a firefighter.

Eight months later we bought a house in a tiny Idaho town (population about 650) and looked forward to opportunities to help the community. The very first night we spent in our house there was a fire department meeting. We introduced ourselves and expressed interest in joining the department. We were thanked for coming by. Then they asked us to leave because they hold “closed meetings.”

When we were told that we just needed to keep showing interest, we worried it would take us awhile to make it into the department because we were “outsiders” in this small community. We showed up to the meetings twice more, each time being asked to leave before the meeting started (fire department “policy”). Turns out that being an outsider was only partially right. By April, they “made room” on the twenty-five person roster for F. (capped at 25 for insurance reasons despite the fact many “members” never show up to calls or training) and relegated me to wait for an EMT class to be held.

I had not expected that my gender would factor into the situation. As it turns out, rumor has it that the department has never had a female firefighter. I kept my head down but began attending the work parties and drills (training) along with F. My hope was to show that I could work hard and be one of the guys.

In July, a rare event occurred: a working house fire. I responded in the ambulance arriving just after the fire engine. I watched F. don an SCBA to perform a search for the resident rumored to be inside with a complicated bunch of feelings: first, concern for him as he struggled with the older and unfamiliar regulator and mask; second, anger as I watched firefighters who did not know how to wear the equipment enter the house while I watched; and third, the need to find something helpful to do with myself ASAP. I helped manipulate the hose outside, I ran (literally) to the fire hall to come back with water, I picked up garbage, rolled dirty hose, and retrieved our truck to help take that hose back to the station. As I left the fire hall, I heard, “Thanks. You did as much work as most of the firefighters today.” After F.’s strong leadership and my work, I really believed I was on my way.

At the next month’s meeting, F. suggested that they reconsider me for membership on the department. Sidestepping the issue by saying they’d “need to consider the roster” (and then not doing so, at least during the meeting), they then reiterated that only firefighters could be on the fire ground or at drills (logical for insurance reasons, devastating for me). I began to pick fights with F. almost every time he returned from being at the fire hall. I was angry, unhappy, and felt extremely isolated. The town is too small to talk to anyone about
what was happening (everyone is connected somehow or another).

Eventually, I reached out to a mentor back in Oregon at the department I trained with. She understood why I was hurt and angry. She let me vent a little, but she also wasn’t afraid to point out how fighting the entrenched system in a small town could be really painful. Fighting the status quo could lead to social isolation for me…and F. I struggled and cried and didn’t know what to do.

Then about a month ago, I realized that I would always be resentful of the fire department and even worse, the town, if I didn’t do anything about the problem. We’d bought our house and a cabin nearby, I’d become a member of the library board, F. was kicking butt on the department and as a member of the planning and zoning board. We were getting married and planning on living right here.

My first step in fighting back was to file a charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). I made lists of other ways I might combat this if the EEOC is unable to help (the state Human Rights Commission, fighting the closed meetings, educating the public) and researched how other small volunteer departments handle themselves. The EEOC charge is moving forward slowly but the process is uncertain, because as an all volunteer department employment laws may or may not apply. I’m in a holding pattern again, albeit one where I feel like I have a bit of control.

If you have a story of standing up to inequality, sexism, homophobia, or otherwise please email me at betterinrealife at gmail dot com. These can be big or small, the impact on yourself and others is always larger than you think.
In my perfect world these stories wouldn’t exist, but my second choice is to live in a world where stories like these are more frequent and not ever brushed under the rug.

32 thoughts on “Guestposting: Lighting a Fire”

  1. Beth, you are one of my heroes – both for being a firefighter and for fighting for your right to serve your community. Thank you for being brave enough to do both of those things.

    Also (on a shallow note) you look so gorgeous and badass in that second picture!

  2. What a great post and a future-happy-ending story..i can feel it! Please please have Lauren keep us updated on your progress and let us know if there is ANYTHING we can do to help! Stay strong!

  3. Wow. Your story, persistence and determination are awe inspiring. Seriously, you are very kick ass.

    I’m so sorry that you’re facing such sexism in the face of your desire to help your community in a way you’re passionate about, but good on your for fighting it.

  4. Damn, girl. Keep kicking ass and taking names.

    It boggles my mind that a community would actually *prevent* someone from serving the community.

    1. Exactly. But there is always the “fear” of letting others into your little club. Ppl think they are protecting something… I wonder if they are just afraid that other ppl might just do it better and make them look bad.

  5. Sigh, As soon as you said small Idaho town I knew where this was going. I am from South eastern idaho going to school but spent the last ten years in a even smaller idaho town with a population of 350. small town politics can be something fierce and you would think wait what this is 2012 there shouldn’t be bias but alas there is. Idaho is one of the most conservative states in the 50 which means also a little behind the times of equality. I hope you are able to serve your community though and they can change their ways 🙂 good luck

  6. Rock on Beth and know we’re cheering you on. I would love to get updates.

    And I second Rachelle, frame that truly stunning photo of yourself right now!

  7. Beth, HOW did I miss this on Twitter?!

    I know the attitude of the area–I grew up in small town Montana right next to Idaho and was always fighting something.

    You are a total badass! Those pictures are some of the awesomest ever. Mucho support from here, anytime you need sympathy or a shot of re-upping, feel free to email/twitter me. 🙂

  8. You fierce, gorgeous lady! Thank you and lauren for sharing your story here. I wish I was shocked, but I think our dept here in the long island burbs is still all male-it definitely was a few years ago-emts yes, firefighters no. it’s such an unfortunate last of the boys clubs things. Pulling for you-you’re doing such an important thing!

  9. Oh wow, all the courage to you Beth, keep fighting. It is so hard to break stereotypes that are embedded in people’s brains, but there is that saying (forgot by whom), “be the change you want to see in the World” and that’s what you are doing. Keep going.

  10. I can’t wait to see how this story turns out! On a side note, a family friend (an older man) tried to get involved with our small town volunteer fire department, and he has lot of experience in the field. Unfortunately, he was told there was no need and has been permanently alienated evidently because he’s not a local good ‘ol boy. Whatever that means.

  11. Hi Beth.

    I’m an Australian lady firefighter. I am lucky. We have 5 ladies in our brigade, 4 of whom hold positions from secretary, to communications (me,) to two lieutenants! I have done Breathing Apparatus on calls, but sometimes get stuck “gophering,” (mostly by young gung-ho men who assume women can’t do what they can.) It does annoy me. We have ladies that drive trucks, ladies that run the training and ladies that crew lead. I am planning to do my crew leading course this year! (I often already crew lead during the day anyway due to no men around.)

    It is always a fight. You always feel the subtleties that separate you from the men, (from the man’s perspective.) But we have supporters as well as skeptics. I think with so many women in the brigade, we support each other to succeed. We offer the ability to multitask, to have great peripheral vision in any situation and the ability to connect with first aid victims on a different level. Men feel threatened and fail to acknowledge these strengths.

    Hang in there and give them hell!

    1. I ran away. :-/ Basically, living in a town of that size is suffocating when you don’t have any allies. We hit the road and started looking for a community where we’re welcomed.

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