Fighting Fire With ... Women Every Day is Ladies' Day at Whispering Pines Fire and Rescue
By Deborah Salomon
They look like soccer moms, sales clerks, teachers. But when the call comes, they trade hoodies for -helmets, sandals for boots, and capris for overalls. They rush to the station, and in less than two minutes don -custom-made gear weighing 50 pounds, costing $1,500 an outfit.
Some petite, others strapping, together they present a formidable brigade - the 13 women firefighters of Estrogen 51, Whispering Pines Fire and Rescue: ready, willing, confident, able and unpaid.
"We are servants; we volunteer because we care," says Shannon Bullard, otherwise a financial -services officer at a state employee credit union. "We're all crazy to some extent but in a good way. Who (in their right mind) would run into a burning -building?"
In truth, the towering inferno -scenario does not happen often in Whispering Pines, although Laura Kinsman and Stacie Turner attended a fully involved -structure fire where kerosene cans exploded in a shed.
Conflagrations are most often caused by grills, lightning, wood stoves and kerosene heaters. More likely, calls are -medical, rescue or, sadly, recovery.
Several women are EMTs. Elizabeth Branson, a firefighter alongside her mother, Linda Christopher, brings experience as an ER nurse at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital.
Bullard can't recall a structure fire that threatened lives.
Branson can. The life threatened was her fiance's.
"We were on an attic fire call. It was pretty calm, then all of a -sudden the roof collapsed on us," Branson says.
She heard a thud. Her then-fiance Jonathan Branson, also a -firefighter, was separated from the group. He managed to slide out but lay on the ground, motionless.
"They called a mayday," Branson says, signaling a rescuer in distress. "When that happened, I was more fiancee than firefighter."
Elizabeth and Jonathan are married now.
"I may be his chief at home, but he's my lieutenant (on the job)," Elizabeth says. They draw a line. "I won't let it affect our home life."
Tar Heel Pride
The Whispering Pines contingent numbers 13 women and 30 men.
Nationally, only 5 percent of firefighters (but 14 percent of police officers) are women. In New York City women applicants sued, claiming gender discrimination. Still, of 11,500 FDNY firefighters, all but 25 are men. No women have been hired since 9/11. Three women rescuers were killed when the twin towers fell.
Pinehurst has two professional female firefighters. Jennifer Thompson, on the force for 10 years, started as a volunteer in Eastwood. She has not experienced gender discrimination.
"Fire doesn't care who you are. Prove you can do your job and there won't be any problems," Thompson says.
Dee Johnson, whose mother was a firefighter for 16 years, also started as a volunteer.
"First it's a shock when people see me driving the truck, but that doesn't bother me," Johnson says. "When they see me do my job, they look at me in a different light."
Aberdeen has three female volunteers; certified firefighter Carol Dowd has volunteered in Southern Pines for 30 years.
Also to North Carolina's credit, the first woman hired as a firefighter in an urban setting was Sandra Forcier, of Winston-Salem, in 1973.
A Trend Catches Fire
Firefighters of Estrogen 51 range in age from 18 to mid-40s. Most are married. They are mothers to nearly a dozen children. Linda Christopher has a grandchild. Impetus for joining the ranks varies.
Stephanie Dziok, wife of interim chief Tim Dziok, is the daughter of a firefighter who was killed in a car accident when she was a toddler. She began working in rescue, in Carthage, at 16.
Laura Kinsman, a golf coach, took a CNA course in high school that required community service hours. She progressed to rescue in Aberdeen and firefighting in Carthage.
Romance prompted others.
"I was dating a captain with Hope Mills fire-rescue in 2006," Erika Walas says. They split, but the interest endured.
Danielle Ikner, a gymnastics coach, had a firefighter friend in high school
Alyssa Ferguson and Stacie Turner both dated firefighters.
"I got tired of my seeing my husband run calls and leave me, so I volunteered and took training," Shannon Bullard says.
Basic volunteer training lasts 36 hours; the women participate in four hours of additional training a week. Only Dziok holds N.C. certification. However, some are licensed to drive the engine, tanker, crash and brush trucks.
The department receives about 45 calls per month. Four or five volunteers answer each call.
Occasionally all responders are women. A structure fire call can last eight exhausting hours.
"It's a lot more than drench the house and leave," Branson says. "We have to pull the walls down and clean up," then complete a written report. They stay in shape by working out in the firehouse fitness room.
The sound of a siren -creates a rush, even on -vacation. But thrills come with chills.
"You have to respect the fire," Christopher says.
"If you're not scared you're reckless and something bad can happen," Branson continues.
"There's that one moment when you ask yourself, 'Is this what I want to do?'" Walas adds.
"You figure that out while you're on the truck," Branson concludes. "When the pager goes off, you just get up and go."
Except when the responders arrive, some -people, usually seniors, are -surprised to see women in full gear, dragging hoses, climbing ladders, wielding axes. One civilian even questioned Dziok's ability to inspect smoke detectors.
"It's still a man's thing," Ikner says.
This attitude breeds a competitive spirit - a healthy competition, Bullard believes. "I only want to prove things to myself."
Besides, Branson adds, if you let the guys do something, you'll never hear the end of it.
Only kudos come from Frank Kocsis, a career -firefighter in Fayetteville and a volunteer in Whispering Pines. Kocsis trains the women - a lot of crawling around and heavy stuff.
"The competition is definitely fierce," Kocsis says. "Females have to prove themselves. I don't show any favoritism. Fire service is brutal, and everyone's equal."
Dangerous work creates close relationships, particularly among women.
"We are family," Linda Christopher states. Heads nod.
"A brotherhood and sisterhood," Dziok continues, inclusively.
The women have birthday parties for the children. They confide in each other. They cook chicken and dumplings together. After a difficult call the group - men and women - gathers at the fire station to decompress.
"There was a drowning - we were on a call for six hours, out in the boats with the dive team," Walas recalls. "It was hot. Afterward we came back here, took showers, got some food, sat down and ate together."
Other duties are less -arduous: hosting tours, speaking at schools, giving directions, installing car seats. If a storm downs a tree across the road, out comes the chain saw. One lady stopped at the firehouse needing a pressure check on her tires.
During stand-by time the women keep equipment clean and ready to go.
"If you see something that needs to be done, you just pitch in and do it yourself," Bullard says.
For no bankable compensation.
"You know that when -somebody calls 911 they're having the worst day of their life," Bullard says. "I feel -satisfaction when we're -finished."
"It's nice to relate (the job) to other things," Branson says. "Like, if you can run into a burning building you can do it."
The Proud, the Not-So-Few
They are strong. They are willing. They are diligent, good-natured and brave. They made a good showing at the quick-dress and hose--connection competitions at Robbins Farmers' Day. They are women's history-makers.
They are Estrogen 51 of Whispering Pines Fire and Rescue: Casey Blue. Elizabeth Branson. Shannon Bullard. Linda Christopher. Stephanie Dziok. Alyssa Ferguson. Laura Kinsman. Cassie Brinkley. Melissa Seawell. Stacie Turner. Erika Walas. Megan Worthy, and newcomer Danielle Ikner.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story