The first time a crew leader barked orders at Sarah Ewald, she knew she’d become part of the team.
“It startled me,” said the Red Lodge volunteer firefighter. “He didn’t know it, but it was an awakening that I wasn’t getting any special treatment. And I’ll never forget that lesson.”
And that’s exactly how Ewald and the four other women firefighters on the Red Lodge Fire Department – Sue Barfield, Erin Oley, Mimi Lockman and Dyann Romeijn – want it.
“We may be a novelty,” Romeijn said, “but we’re just another part of the team.”
The women signed on at different times but share a common purpose.
Barfield, 53, an assistant professor at Montana State University-Billings who soloed in last year’s Peaks to Prairie, joined seven years ago. Four years later, Ewald, 39, signed up. Described by the others as a “professional volunteer,” Ewald spends countless hours as the department secretary.
Oley, Lockman and Romeijn went through training together in January 2004. Oley, 28, is a nurse practitioner, volunteer and coach of the middle-school cross-country team. Romeijn, 34, the mother of two and an EMT, works for HRDC. Lockman, 37, is executive director of the Boys and Girls Club, not to mention an active member on several boards and councils. All joined the department as a way to make a difference in their community.
“It (9/11) heightened my desire to volunteer in some capacity that was worthwhile and meaningful,” Ewald said. “If feels good helping someone with an immediate need. And you can.”
Five women firefighters on a 41-member department may be unusual, but having women on the Red Lodge Volunteer Fire Department is not.
Ron Kotar, a 35-year RLVFD volunteer, remembers the first. Rosie Ryan broke the ice years ago, he said. Before she applied, the older firemen frowned on any woman who even put in an application, he said. When Ryan came along, they talked about delegating her to coffee-making duty. But that’s not what Ryan had in mind, and it didn’t take long for her to win over any doubters.
“She got right in there with the rest of those boys and fought fire,” he said. “She did an excellent job.”
The department has frequently had at least one woman on the roster. And every one of them has excelled, some even surpassing the men, Kotar said.
Following such a tradition, it’s little wonder that today’s five female volunteers don’t consider themselves anything special.
“The fact that there are five women on the department is a reflection of the men,” Romeijn said.
The women say they feel accepted by their 36 male counterparts, but they sing special praises for fire chief Tom Kuntz, who has held the position for nine years. In fact, it was his encouragement that enticed several of the women to join.
“He wouldn’t ask someone if he didn’t think you could do it,” Oley said.
When Kuntz seeks new members, he doesn’t consider gender.
“The culture we have tried to create in our fire department is one of acceptance,” he said. “I look for someone who tends to be outgoing, adventurous and wants to learn new things.”
Kuntz, who frequently attends national firefighter meetings, has encountered few women in the higher ranks. He’s never seen a survey on firefighter gender, and Montana doesn’t keep track of the women within its volunteer ranks. But he’s always eager for more.
“In one sense, it seems like quite a few,” Kuntz said of the five women on his department. “In one sense, it’s not nearly enough.”
Some men question whether women are strong enough. Kuntz puts more emphasis on physical fitness and aerobic capacity, and those are two factors in which women can excel. In fact, he added, of the department’s four most fit members, two are women.
“And I’m not naming names,” he said, smiling.
The women themselves feel they might have an edge when it comes to aerobic fitness and agility. If they just had to run, they feel confident they could hold their own. But, when it comes to upper body strength, they realize their limits.
“That’s a great equalizer,” said Ewald.
During an annual training test, all firefighters are required to complete a list of physically demanding tasks. They pull hoses, climb stairs, drag a tractor tire with a chain and lift a five-gallon bucket full of cement from the floor to the roof of the firehouse, using a pulley system – all in under five minutes. The tests of upper body strength prove the most taxing, the women agree.
But they say size, more than strength, tests their mettle in the field.
When Barfield first signed on, she was by far the smallest member of the team. A 5-foot-2-inch woman, Barfield “swam” in the turnout gear.
“But they took care of that immediately,” she said. “You can’t be in a situation when you’re tripping over something.”
Not only does her height challenge her – it’s tough carrying a ladder with a taller firefighter, she said – it can also challenge the taller firefighters.
“When I drive (a fire truck), their legs are kind of cramped against the dash,” she laughed.
When fully outfitted, Oley, who barely tips the scales over 100 pounds, carries nearly half her weight in gear.
“Sometimes it feels like I’m going to tip over,” she laughed. “I go home from training exhausted – and I run every morning.”
But the stamina she’s gained from running does have its payoffs. She completed her wildland fire training requirement – a test during which firefighters must walk three miles in 45 minutes carrying a 45-pound pack – with nine minutes to spare.
Oley is small enough that she needs backup when she’s working the hose. The charged line is so forceful that it can lift her off the ground.
Small size can also be a plus, the women say. During a training exercise in which firefighters were to remove their turnout gear to navigate a tight space, the women were able to turn sideways and slip right through in full garb.
The women recognize that everyone has their area of expertise, and that’s not necessarily gender-specific.
“Are we all equally capable? Probably not,” Ewald said.
As members of the department, the women – just as the men – are expected to respond to 10 percent of the calls. They estimate they make closer to 50 percent.
“You just respond when you can,” Lockman said.
They respond to fires, car accidents, hazardous materials accidents, search and rescue and even “burnt toast” calls. Ewald and Romeijn remember responding to a report of a gas-like odor at the Red Lodge Clinic. They donned their gear, including their breathing apparatus, and made a thorough sweep of the facility.
“It was the lawnmower outside,” Ewald laughed.
Of the five, Romeijn is the only one to set her sights on being a professional firefighter. She was drawn to the profession after 9/11. Her decision was sealed after she attended a fire camp in Billings.
“I never knew what I wanted to do, but now I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said.
Like the rest of the department, she is required to put in 36 hours of training a year. With several months to go, she’s already clocked 94 hours this year. Last year, she topped 200.
Last spring, when she tried out for the Billings Fire Department, she was nagged by a constant reminder of her gender. In the first trimester of her pregnancy, she trained on the treadmill with a bucket at her side. She didn’t pass the grueling test – only one woman has – but she plans to give it a try again this year.