Santa Fe (NM) Women Break Into Firefighters’ ‘Boys Club’

Victoria Traxler

The Santa Fe New Mexican

(MCT)

Jul. 19—Jennifer Edmunds showed up at the Santa Fe Fire Department’s orientation Wednesday prepared and motivated to finish the agency’s rigorous fitness test.

The course includes strenuous exercises meant to mimic the challenges of firefighting — such as carrying a 180-pound dummy through a series of cones and running with heavy equipment, all while fully suited up in firefighting gear.

“If I didn’t pass it, then I knew I could retake it,” Edmunds said. “But that wasn’t OK with me. I wanted to pass it on my first try.”

Edmunds — who completed the course in 7 minutes and 13 seconds that day — is the first woman to finish the city department’s physical ability test on her first try.

If she passes other examinations and an interview, she could become the fourth woman on a city firefighting staff of 189 full-time employees.

She has worked as a firefighter in Los Lunas and Albuquerque, she said.

With women making up only 2 percent of the Santa Fe Fire Department, the agency falls below the national average. But nationwide numbers of women in firefighting remain low. A 2018 report by the National Fire Protection Association found 8 percent of firefighters were women, and among career firefighters, women made up 4 percent.

Women in the field cite a range of reasons for the low count: the physical demands, a lack of interest, a “boys club” culture on some fire crews, long shifts that deter mothers and little representation of female firefighters to draw younger generations of women and girls.

Envisioning a firefighting career

The Santa Fe Fire Department recognizes its gender gap and is addressing the issue through aggressive recruitment efforts focusing on women.

Over the past decade, it has had an average of five or six women at a time, Fire Chief Paul Babcock said. “My belief is our department should mirror the community, and I don’t feel I have that diversity in the fire department,” he added.

The department’s orientation program is part of the recruitment effort. It’s designed to give potential applicants an understanding of the department, what it means to be a firefighter and the physical demands of the job.

Orientation participants who pass the tough physical ability test receive a certificate that allows them to move on to the next stage of the employment process.

Capt. Brittany Snyder, who’s been with the city fire department for over 20 years, said she believes the process can be intimidating for young women and girls, and the lack of women firefighters can make it harder to envision a career in the department.

“The idea was, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” she said. “We’re trying to make an effort to show women that we can do this, we are here, we can be a real valuable presence in the fire service.”

The disparity seems to start at the front door, she added, with a lack of female applicants.

Snyder said she fell in love with the idea of being a firefighter as a young adult and realized two other women in the department felt that way as well.

“That became a common theme — that if we wanted to attract more women to apply, we needed to be capturing them in early high school and early college years,” she said.

In 2020, the city fire department created a Diversity Committee to address a range of diversity issues and identify ways to resolve them.

Snyder is a member of the committee, along with training Capt. Jennifer Dickey and emergency medical services Capt. Faith Applewhite. Each has brought her individual experiences to the table. Through the women’s work with the committee, the agency is considering a new lactation policy that would allow more flexible options for mothers.

The common shift for a firefighter is what’s known as a 48-96, with a full two-day shift followed by four days off. The schedule can be burdensome for any firefighter, but for new mothers, the long shift combined with erratic calls for service can be even more difficult, Snyder said.

The policy, she added, would help avoid forcing women “to choose between nursing their baby and leaving their career.”

“With fires, you have to worry about the contamination of breast milk, and then of course when you’re working shifts, you have to actually be able to pump,” Dickey said.

The committee also is looking at radio ads, social media campaigns and other avenues to boost women’s interest in the department.

The city department isn’t the only one struggling to employ full-time female firefighters.

The Santa Fe County Fire Department also has struggled to hire women — it now has four among its 101 career firefighters — but made history in January, when Chief Jackie Lindsey became its first female chief.

When she was a girl, Lindsey said, a friend of her father who was a firefighter told her she was too small to consider the job.

“And I never considered it again. I really didn’t,” she said.

But as Lindsey was training for the 2000 Olympics for the Canadian softball team, a friend’s father recommended she try firefighting as a career. The more she learned about it, she said, the deeper she became interested in the fire service, and soon found a “network” of firefighters encouraging her to join.

Lindsey now oversees more than 150 firefighters and leads a department that responds to wildland fires, structure fires, medical crises and other emergencies. Her advice to young women as well as men is to push through the expectations of others.

“I joke with my guys, you can either be an adventurer or a hostage in the game of life,” she said. “If you take on and believe those narratives, then it’ll be true.”

The standards for fitness and agility are “no joke,” Lindsey said.

She was able to pass her tests on the first try, but noted she was in the best shape of her life since she had just competed in the Olympics.

The tests are difficult for everyone regardless of gender, she said.

Another one of the county’s five female firefighters pushing back against gender narratives is 44-year-old Daisy Graves. Firefighting, she said, was always something she felt called to do.

“I’m a very sensitive person. Everyone says my superpower is my empathy,” Graves said. “I just have a natural ability to be a caregiver … and even in fire calls, we are still caregiving in that we are taking care of people who are experiencing loss, tragedy.”

A common misconception about the job is the frequency of fires the team responds to, she said. The majority of calls for service they respond to are medical emergencies.

Women in a male-dominated field

Anna Mercil is starting her first full-time position as a Santa Fe National Forest wildland firefighter in Española. For the last four summers, she’s been working with U.S. Forest Service field crews in Salida, Colo.

She has always been the only woman on her team.

Mercil became interested in wildland firefighting and prevention after working with a conservation crew in Colorado seven years ago. Her passion for chain saws, hard work and the outdoors led her to the Forest Service, she said.

Santa Fe National Forest has an estimated eight to 10 female firefighters, Forest Service spokeswoman Julie Anne Overton said.

Sometimes calls have sent Mercil’s crew out for 21 days at a time. Though she’s always comfortable on the job and enjoys working with the teams of men, she said, it would be nice to have another woman around.

“There’s definitely a ‘boys club mentality,’ and that can get a little hard sometimes to deal with,” she said. “But there’s always opportunities to get away from it.”

Jokes, jargon and cultural slang have a “male-dominated tone” in the field, she said.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hamilton, a volunteer firefighter, said she feels disadvantaged at times.

“When you have very few people on a fire, you want to be able to do everything,” Hamilton said. “And there are just some things that are physically bigger than I am, so that’s a frustration to me.”

But, she said, her size and stature also have made all the difference in some situations.

When a minivan overturned on Interstate 25, leaving passengers trapped inside, Hamilton said it was her small size that allowed her to help stabilize the vehicle.

“I was the only one small enough to crawl through the half-crushed window on the opposite side of the vehicle to be able to get hands-on stabilizing before any other major work was done on the vehicle,” she said. “So every once in a while, being small is a help.”

Graves said her passion for working with the county fire department was ignited by a close friend and continued as she saw a few strong, powerful women join the team and become role models.

The representation, she said, makes all the difference.

“Maybe it just takes one woman to spark that little spark,” she said.

Edmunds said part of what drove her desire to be a firefighter was to show girls what is possible when you set your mind to it.

“I know there are a lot more challenges I have to face than a typical guy,” she said. “I’ve failed plenty of times before, but I know that if you work hard you can get it done.

“I would love to inspire other females, girls, kids or whoever, knowing that they can look at me and know that it’s possible to get where I am today.”

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