When conjuring up an image of a firefighter, a woman does not usually come to mind. The Springs Fire Department defies this stereotype with four female firefighters and seven female emergency medical technicians.
Dale Brabant paved the way, joining the fire department 26 years ago, and becoming its first female interior firefighter about 15 years ago. “It was tough,” she said this week. “And it was easier then; it wasn’t as intense as it is now.” Ms. Brabant, 56, started off as an emergency medical technician after her children were born and decided later to become a firefighter.
Karen Haab, 49, an interior firefighter and advanced E.M.T. who is an ambulance first lieutenant, is in her 11th year with the 80-person department. Ann Glennon, 56, an interior firefighter and former truck lieutenant, has seven years with the department. Dawn Green, 40, is the newcomer among the women firefighters, having joined up four years ago at the encouragement of a male friend.
“I’ve never felt such incredible support,” Ms. Green said of both the men and women she volunteers with. Everyone in the department has proven to be a willing teacher. “I ask questions, and people don’t look at me like I’m an idiot. They answer me,” she said, “I’ve been treated like an equal. For me, that just blows my mind.”
“When they see you showing up for the drills, to really learn and want to be involved, there is a whole respect there,” said Ms. Glennon, who was the department’s firefighter of the year for 2010. “I’ve never second-guessed myself, do I belong here. I’ve been very lucky with the department and the men I work with. If you put in the effort, they’re willing to teach you and back you up.”
Ms. Green talked this week about the process of becoming first an emergency medical technician and then an interior firefighter. After being accepted into the volunteer department, she attended six months of classes, 12 hours a week to become a certified E.M.T., finishing with two required tests — one written and one to assess her practical skills. “You take blood pressure, use an automatic electronic defibrillator, and if there’s a trauma, you have to know which questions to ask,” Ms. Green said, “especially for the elderly and children.” She then trained to become an interior firefighter, learning how to go inside buildings to combat fires, how to carry hoses and conduct search and rescue for victims.
At the Suffolk County Fire Academy in Yaphank would-be firefighters get hands-on experience. "We learned how to secure a ladder or chainsaw on the roof to ventilate it. You have to be able to bring the tools safely up to the roof and back down again, so they're not dropping on somebody," she said. They also master hose handling: "You have to know how to properly back somebody up. There's so much pressure going through it, you need someone to push on your back so that you can direct the water where to go. It's important to learn teamwork," Ms. Green said.
Although she has never encountered sexism in the Springs Fire Department, she did see it at the fire academy. "There was one older gentleman who said to the other guys, 'Somebody go over there and help her roll that hose,' " Ms. Green recalled. "I said 'No, why are you asking him? If I'm going to take on the job of savings someone's life, I should be able to do the things that you, you, and you, are doing. If I can't do it, than I have no place being here.' "
"I wouldn't be a firefighter if I didn't think that I couldn't take that. If I was faced with a 300 pound person, and I couldn't pull them out of a fire, then I have no right to be there," she said. That's not to say there aren't some physical limitations. "Facts are facts, men and women are built differently," she said, "But I am a very determined woman. From an emergency point, I don't see how I wouldn't be able to do it."
Ms. Green's father contributed to her can-do attitude. When she got her license as a teenager in Michigan, she said, her dad gave her some tools, took her out in the car, broke it, and told her to fix it so she could get back home, saying " 'I'll never have a daughter who will be a stranded helpless woman on the side of the road. . . . That has pushed me through my whole life. From plumbing to fixing my own car, I can do it," she said. "He treated me as an equal, and I expect people to treat me as an equal."
She also remembered a high school English teacher who saved her friend from choking on a hamburger. "He just walked right up, out of nowhere like some kind of angel. He did the Heimlich, and she was fine," she said. "I was in awe of this man, and I thought he could do anything."
But she never thought she would become that "angel" to someone else. Then she realized the Springs Fire would train her, and she was hooked.
"It's an adrenaline pump," said Ms. Glennon, who remembered holding the hose at her first fire. "The camaraderie, there's no fear at that time." She served as a truck lieutenant for a time, but with two jobs she was unable to devote the time that the position required and stepped down from that role.
Ms. Glennon got involved with the department 13 years ago as the fire district treasurer. When her children were out of school she trained to become a firefighter. Even though she had been "petrified to hear the fire alarms," it was "Something I've always wanted to do," she said.
"I'm not afraid now. I found strength in me I didn't know I had," Ms. Glennon said. That strength carries over to other aspects of her life. "I can accomplish a lot more than I ever thought since I joined. Something that might have been out of my reach is now not," she said.
Ms. Haab, who was also an E.M.T. before becoming a firefighter about four years ago, said that her work in the department has focused her life. "It brings all your craziness to a halt," she said. "It opens your eyes in the world. Helping people out is an amazing feeling."
A surgical technician at Long Island Jewish Hospital in Queens for 18 years, Ms. Haab learned to think ahead in anticipation of a doctor's next move. "That helped me out as an E.M.T., and in fires. You need to think of the next step, and if everything is going smoothly," she said. In a life-threatening situation, this is crucial. "When you're in a fire, you have to protect yourself. There's no difference between women and men." Even so, she said "The men do protect the women a little bit. If we're first on the hose, they back us up." The gear alone weighs 75 pounds, Ms. Haab said, "It's a lot of weight that you have to carry." She exercises four times a week to stay in shape. "We help each other out, and you just pray that you have someone really good behind you."
Ms. Haab runs her own property management business and is at the firehouse four days a week. "It's a lot of work, and keeps us out of trouble," she said.
"Everybody works so hard and gives so much to the fire department," Ms. Green said. "It's really nice to see a community that pulls together so well."
She stressed that more volunteers are needed. "I don't think people realize the amount of time we put in." She responds as both an E.M.T. and a firefighter, and is on call from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. for seven days on a rotating weekly shift. There are also house committees, pancake breakfasts, and additional work as the department secretary.
Regardless of the time commitment, Ms. Green said she feels "Blessed and honored to be part of the department. I'm not from here, I don't have family here; I'm a single mom with two teenage kids. And I've felt like family from the people out here. It's something very unique."
Ms. Haab enjoys hearing people's reactions when she tells them about her "hobby."
"It's a wonderful feeling, they say, 'Really, you're a firefighter?' " Her reply: "Yeah, we can do it, anyone can do it. As women, we should be very proud of what we do."