Male volunteer firefighters outnumber females 9-to-1


Photo By Rick Harris
Melissa Linberg of the Watauga Volunteer Fire Department is typical of todayƕs firefighters as she is trained in both fire suppression and medical techniques.

By Lesley Jenkins
star staff
ljenkins@starhq.com
When a fire call rings across scanners, volunteers from respective departments respond to the scene to offer assistance. Fire trucks roll down streets with lights flashing and sirens wailing. Firefighters shuffle out of fire engines, personal trucks and cars, and hustle to put on their turn-out gear.
In a structure fire, firemen run into a flaming building to rescue anyone left inside. But who is left in the background, behind the trucks or running the pumps? Female firefighters. With a ratio of 9-to-1 male volunteers to female volunteers, if a fire happens in Carter County, chances are female firefighters won't be crawling all over the scene.
However, Elk Mills/Poga Fire Department Chief Eddie Clawson said: "Without the women we couldn't operate." Clawson's wife Pat is trained not only in basic fire fighting, but also in driving engines, crash trucks and the Pug.
Janice Cable, Maybelle Hatley, Texie Haga and Michelle Walsh also volunteer at Elk Mills. Cable said she volunteers because she wants to help people and because she has always had an interest in the medical field.
Being a woman doesn't hinder her from helping on scene, whether it is a car crash or a house fire. However, she said some jobs, like entering a burning house, are done by the men at her station. But that doesn't mean the women are not involved.
Cable said women oversee the pumps, monitor water pressure, and, also, a task most men aren't too keen on, provide emotional support to families. "We try to comfort the family. We try to talk to them where you might not see a man doing that," Cable said.
Judy Carver, pump operator for Roan Mountain Volunteer Fire Department for six years, said many people would be surprised at how comforting the firemen are to the victims.
David Nichols, EMS deputy director and volunteer fireman at Stoney Creek Fire Department said: "The women are just as important as the guys. We don't have women in the stations just to clean the fire halls and clean commodes. Guys are doing that."
Manning the pump requires constant supervision of the water lines and knowing who is inside the structure. Also, being aware of who needs a break and encouraging them to take one are also part of the job.
The first female fire fighter for Roan Mountain, Carver said, "I pretty much run the show. More or less everything on scene goes through me as the pump operator. I know who all the firefighters are that are going in or coming out of the structure. They all have to come by me. I tell them what needs to be done. At any point in time I can tell you where each of my men are."
"It is important for any woman who wants to be a firefighter to know that you don't have to go into the fire. There are plenty of other things that can be done," said Carver, a daytime nurse and also EMT/IV technician.
Nichols also stressed the importance of running the pumps. Inside a burning structure, if the water pressure suddenly drops or quits flowing completely, the pump controller has the lives of those inside in his or her hands.
Melissa Linberg, Watauga Volunteer Fire Department volunteer, joked that she started 16 months ago because, she "went insane" and because she wanted to help people. Linberg stated that her favorite part of being a volunteer is the camaraderie between all the members. "I couldn't ask for a better group of them. They don't treat me any different than any of the men."
Although Linberg hasn't gained the courage to go into a fire, she hopes to go into a burning structure in less than six months. She said claustrophobia has contributed to her fear.
Nichols said one important job women do is take care of firefighters who go inside a burning structure, whether it be telling them to rest, changing their air packs, forcing water down their throats, or bandaging cuts and scrapes so they can get back to work.
Carver's main duty at a scene is manning the pumps, but she has been known to go into a burning structure when needed. She said gaining the trust of all the men was hard for her at first. "It takes a long time to earn respect of these men. But the respect is always there once you have earned it."
Clawson said even though the female volunteers for Elk Mills don't go into a burning structure, he still "wouldn't have a fear in the world as far as trusting them" as his partner in a fire.
The hardest part for men, of course, is going into a fire. It is hard for them to explain what it will be like to new volunteers. They will never know until they go in, and each man must trust his partner. It takes a while to gain that trust, Carver said.
According to Cable, the toughest part of being a firefighter is when you know that there is nothing you can do or seeing someone lose everything they own.
"It takes a lot of dedication and hard work," Cable said. "But it is worth it if you can help one person and you can see it in their eyes."