When Jessica Zaremski, a local career cross-trained firefighter and medic, starts a chainsaw she sets it on the ground, kneels on top of it, and, using the strength in her legs, she tugs the starter cord to get it going.
It’s not the usual way many first responders start a chainsaw.
Some males in the field may use their upper body strength — hold the machine in their hands and start it up that way.
But women first responders, like Zaremski, often must figure out alternative ways to complete many of the tasks their jobs demand, which can be physically challenging.
“It’s using the techniques that we have to try [and] do it a different way,” said Marquita Whisonant, a career firefighter and paramedic at Henry Fire Company Station 6.
But Whisonant does not feel her gender is an issue and said the men in the field treat women equally. Because when the alarm sounds in the station, women firefighters and medics know that duty calls and that they have individuals to help.
“We know our jobs, we know what we have to do, so we go right in there with them and stand up beside each other and do what we have to do,” Whisonant said.
According to Hanover Fire-EMS data, out of 771 responders, including both volunteer and career employees, women make up 22.2 percent of all personnel. And for women working in a field comprised of primarily male first responders, it is about getting the job done the best way they can.
Sometimes Whisonant said she calls on other female firefighters to learn new ways to accomplish tasks such as setting up a ladder. Whisonant forsees other challenges coming her way in the future, because she just recently got engaged and plans to start a family.
“This is a heavy male-populated field, so how’s it going to be for a woman to get pregnant and have babies?” Whisonant said. “That is going to be a challenge for me once we do begin starting our family.”
Whisonant said that her station has only had one pregnant female on the crew, but she did not return to work after giving birth.
Jennifer “Jenna” Jamison, a volunteer cross-trained firefighter and medic with Henry Fire Company Station 6, echoed the sentiments of her peers. Jamison said she personally has no upper body strength.
“I can’t even start a lawnmower,” she said.
So she, too, has to find other ways to accomplish certain tasks such as starting a chainsaw the same way Zaremski does by laying it on the ground.
Regardless of a firefighter’s or medic’s gender, Zaremski said each individual brings something to the table.
Although the position does require strength, it also requires paying attention to detail, working as a team and sometimes being able to comfort patients or victims. In situations such as the latter, Zaremski said women can be better suited because of the nurturing side of females.
In addition, Zaremski said she personally brings her passion for fitness and being detail-oriented to the table even though she hangs back a lot. For instance, on a medic call, she will make sure that the paramedics have all the equipment, tools and drugs they need to do the job.
“I’m the one who’s always trying to anticipate other people’s needs,” she said.
Whisonant is compassionate and positive and brings that to the table, she said.
She is also like a “ray of sunshine” for her crew, Zaremski said about her, noting she is constantly smiling and has a good attitude.
In the field, Whisonant carries her positive mindset and compassion to patients.
“I sincerely just to help everybody, so I just bring that,” she said.
Jamison said Whisonant has a good reputation and demeanor with patient because she is always kind and tolerant with individuals she’s helping.
Jamison also brings something specific to her crew — her leadership qualities. In most situations out in the field, Jamison said she will be the one in her crew that takes the reigns. And at the station, she holds a position as vice president at Henry Fire Company Station 6 where she’s in charge of scheduling meetings and birthday parties, handling money and enforcing rules.
Challenges in training
Each woman had different experiences during their time in the fire academy. But, one trend that many noticed was that there were not as many females in training. In some cases, those women were the only ones.
During Zaremski’s training, she was the only woman out of six people in her career firefighter academy and the only person to not have experience prior to the training.
“It was the challenge of not only being a female, but then also just being new and having everyone else knowing what’s going on and you’re the only one that’s clueless and has never done any of this before,” Zaremski said.
So because of the learning curve and being a woman amongst a slew of men, Zaremski did everything she could just to get through the academy and succeed, almost like a “survival of the fittest.”
When Joanna Stephens, a volunteer paramedic at Station 16 Ashland Rescue Squad and volunteer firefighter at Farrington Station 11, went through the volunteer fire academy she said she was also the only female there, but out of 18 individuals.
“That was interesting going through the process,” Stephens said.
At the beginning, Stephens said many of the men tried being chivalrous by helping her out but she consistently denied assistance because she would have to do the tasks on her own.
But other than that, she said all the men were supportive.
“I’ve been very blessed that I haven’t really had an issue of negativity about being a woman in the service,” Stephens said.
Just like Zaremski, though, Stephens also faces challenges. Stephens said she quickly realized that she would have to do things differently as a woman and lift objects by using her legs rather than using her upper body. She also ran or worked out once a week outside of academy for extra training so she could be up to speed with others.
“It was ‘think smarter, not harder,’” Stephens said.
When Jamison went through training, she too said she it was challenging especially during exercises in the “burn building” when they were required to carry a hose up a set of stairs in the structure.
“You gotta get up to the top and pull the hose up to the top,” Jamison said. “By that time, I was done and you’re still not even done.”
Afterwards you have to retrieve and “save” a dummy from the structure and get it out of the house and drag the hose out. Some people in her academy were a little faster and did the exercise in four minutes, Jamison said.
“I’m lucky if I do it in 10,” she added. “It was hard.”
Similarly, the academy challenged Whisonant. Although Whisonant said she was not the only woman in her academy and even had a female mentor, she, too, had a rough time during training because she did not have any previous firefighter experience before enrolling in the career fire academy. But having a female mentor to help her go through the process really helped her out.
“I was a little nervous to ask questions in front of all these guys who knew everything already, so I had her that I could go and ask, ‘Well, what exactly is this? What am I supposed to do with it again?’” Whisonant said.
Work as one
At the end of the day, regardless of gender, all first responders are family.
“When it all comes down to it, we all work well together no matter who we are, male, female or where we’re from, when it comes down to a big incident,” Jamison said.
The ladies are treated like family members just like the men at a station are. For instance, Zaremski was recently out on “light duty” because she had shoulder surgery and she said a number of her fellow firefighters checked up on her.
And they really do act like one family. Even though Zaremski wasn’t fully back to work, she ate dinner with her station a few nights a week and some of her crew have offered her rides.
“Even on our worse days, people check up on you and people care,” Zaremski said.
There is also a sense of camaraderie among the women firefighters and medics. Because women are often a minority in Hanover Fire-EMS, they try to help each other out when needed and also hang out and spend time together. Zaremski said a group of them get together for “Girls Nights Outs,” bowling, paintball or crafts.
The support and friendship, regardless of gender, is what helps these three women keep going sometimes, even when the job gets tough.
“It’s nice just having the support that we have — where we can talk to each other and help each other through it,” Whisonant said.