FEMALE FIREFIGHTERS: Put To The Test

It’s dangerous, dirty, demanding work.  It requires stamina, strength and speed.

“Yeah, firefightin`s not for everybody,” says Chief Jerry Holt, the Chief of the Urbandale Fire Department.

But for those who want a career that’s all about helping others, combined with a serious adrenaline rush, the risks are worth it.

“When they have to perform they are occupational athletes,” says Holt.  They go from zero to sixty just like that and they have to be able to perform at a very high level.”

It’s why Holt wants the best of the best on his department.  In Urbandale, you can’t even be a candidate unless you pass this physical ability test.

Firefighter Drew Stiles shows us the course for the test.  It starts with the easiest task, turning on the hydrant.

“It’s not really that tough, but when you put on gear and add all that weight, it adds to it,” says Holt.

The gear weighs roughly 50-pounds and it feels a lot heavier by the second station, which entails pulling a water-filled hose.  It’s followed by a station that is meant to mimic cutting through a door or roof.  It’s exhausting and makes the fourth station – carrying a 50-pound tool pack – feel like a break.  It’s a needed break, because station five is the hardest.  Candidates must carry a 165-pound dummy 50-feet.

“It’s a 165-pounds and it feels like 500-pounds when you’re doing it,” says Holt.

Candidates must complete all of the stations in four minutes.  Stiles beats the clock, finishing in 3:47.

“It`s a little hot,” Stiles says while gasping for breath.

The work is so strenuous, medics check his vitals before he moves on to station six – the ladder climb.  Chief Holt says it’s a requirement to ensure candidates aren’t scared of heights.

The ladder is 75-feet.  A candidates must get up and down in three minutes.  The time limit is the same for the final station.

“He’s going to wear this mask and follow this hose on his hands and knees,” says Holt.

The mask is black to mimic getting lost inside a fire.

“If you can find that hose, and keep it in your hands, you can find your way out.”

Stiles completes every station, with time to spare.

“Every one of those obstacles is something we could do at any point in time,” says Stiles.  “Today, tomorrow, tonight, whenever.”

So why are Erin Kiernan and Sonya Heitshusen suiting up to take the test?  It’s all because of personal trainer, Angie Gallagher.

“A lot of females weren’t able to pass the test, so they wanted me to come take a look and see what I thought,” says Gallagher.

She’s not worried about Sonya passing the test, “She’ll be fine, Sonya’s very strong.”

Holt wants Gallagher to come up with a workout that will help female candidates get stronger so they can compete at an even level as the men.

After suiting up in the 50-pounds of gear, the test begins.  Sonya and Erin have no idea what to expect, but that’s the point.

The fire hydrant is fairly simple.  Dragging the hose poses some problems.  The dummy-drag is where Sonya call it quits.

” I can`t do it,” says Sonya.  The time is 6-minutes.

“Oh my God, says Sonya.  “You get to that point and you’re spent!”

Sonya finishes the ladder climb in under the time limit.  Next up, the hose follow.

“We`ll put you into the mask and give you a few seconds to acclimate.,” says AC Cardwell, another Urbandale Firefighter.

The mask is black and confining.  Sonya finishes this station, but not in the alloted time.

“How ya’ doing?” asks Cardwell.

“I’m dying of heat,” says Sonya, gasping for air and drenched in sweat.  “Totally, the hardest workout ever.  It’s so mental.”

Allowing women in fire service has always been controversial.  In 1982, after winning a discrimination lawsuit, more than 40-women were allowed to join the New York City Fire Department.

138-women are eligible to reapply for a job with the Chicago Fire Department after a federal class action lawsuit was settled in May.

A 2008 national report card on women in firefighting showed there are more than 350-thousand paid firefighters in the country.  Women only make up about 4-percent of the ranks.

Leaders like Chief Holt say they’re trying to change that.

“That`s what we`re trying to do, level the playing field so everybody has an honest opportunity to get past this part of the test.”

“I’m terrified,” says Erin, who is next in line to take the test.  “It doesn’t bode well for me that Sonya struggled that much.”

After suiting up, Erin goes through the same drill.

Again, the dummy-drag is the deal-breaker.

“Oh, I’m done, I’m done,” says Erin.

But she’s not done.  The ladder climb is next.  But it’s a breeze compared to the previous exercises.  Erin finishes it in the required time.  The hose follow is a different story.  Erin fights claustrophobia as she dons the mask.  To ease the fear, the crew removes the cloth covering the mouthpiece.

Erin finishes the drill, but every inch is torture, “I start hyperventilating, freaking out.”

“The way we get people past that is just repetition and getting used to it,” explains Holt.

Remember what he said in the beginning, “Firefightin’s not for everybody.”

He’s right.  Claustrophobia or a fear of heights can take you out of the running.  Being a woman shouldn’t.

“The fire doesn`t know whether you`re male or female, the victim doesn`t know male or female,” says Holt.  “They want somebody who`s competent, who`s going to be there when they`re supposed to be there and do what they need to do, and that`s not tied to gender in any way.”

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