Burning down the ‘wall’

For these women firefighters, they’re just one of the gang

Posted: April 28, 2012

Coming back from a call, firefighter medic Jolene Powell steps out of a McGaheysville Volunteer Fire Company truck. (Photo by Holly Marcus)
Firefighter medic Powell has made fire and rescue her career, starting with her volunteer work in 1988. She has worked at almost every fire station in Rockingham County and is currently employed with the McGaheysville Volunteer Fire Company. (Photo by Holly Marcus)
Not so long ago, gender roles meant a lot. And, if you were female, it meant that certain opportunities were off limits to you. Period.
 
Times have changed, but labels can die hard; how are women in traditionally male jobs faring today?
 
Dr. Audie Gaddis, licensed clinical psychologist at Commonwealth Psychological Services, says placing unfair limitations on anyone based on gender is psychologically and culturally unhealthy.
 
“ ‘If you’re this gender, you can’t do this.’ That’s a cultural norm - or wall - that’s very quickly falling, as well it should,” he said.
 
Rocktown Weekly recently talked to female firefighters, Jolene Powell and Lieutenant Karen Will of Rockingham County Fire and Rescue. Together, they’re helping to burn that wall down.
 
Not a spectator
 
Powell’s girlhood dreams were more flower power than firefighter: She wanted to be a florist in high school. But, she spent much of her high school days hanging out with volunteering friends at the firehouse near her home in Bridgewater.
 
“The guys said, ‘Well, you’re here all the time. You might as well join,” she recalls.
 
The boys’ club didn’t expect her to call their bluff. “The guys said, ‘You can’t do that, you’re a girl.’ It made me mad, and made me want to do it even more. … That made me more determined.”
 
After high school, Powell went to Northern Virginia Community College to study fire science and volunteered in Fairfax County. She says her country-mouse roots brought her back to Rockingham County Fire and Rescue, where she now serves as a career station medic.
 
Not a quitter
 
Thirty years ago, Will paved the way for women like Powell with a similar start: by not settling for the sidelines.
 
Sitting in her future husband’s car while he went on calls, Will thought, “ ‘You know what? I can do this.’ ”
 
But, the powers-that-be disagreed. Her first three applications were rejected.
 
“After they turned me down, [I said] ‘Do they think I can’t do this?’ ” she remembered. “I knew that I could do what they were doing ... all that I asked was they give me a shot at it.”
 
She didn’t intend to break any molds, but after the fourth try, Will became the first female firefighter in Rockingham County.
 
Proving themselves, being themselves Gaddis says the tenacity Powell, Will and others show in pursuit of their goals is evidence of society’s shifting views about gender, which “allows for women to see they have opportunities available that used to be denied them.”
 
Both Powell and Will say that being in an occupation for the right reasons makes all the difference.
 
“There are some women who are afraid to get their fingernails dirty or hair out of place,” says Powell. “But, I think, if you can get in there and do the job, ... you should be here.”
 
Will agreed: “Your heart has to be in it. ... The guys want to know you’re going to be there when you’re needed,” especially in high-risk lines of work.”
 
Building trusting relationships has been vital for both women. “When I first got in, when we went into a fire, men would take the nozzle out of my hand, thinking they could do a better job,” says Will.
 
She says that, after a shaky start — “the guys” were unsure of whether to refuse her help, or do everything for her — the camaraderie she now shares with her fellow firefighters is priceless.
 
And often her gender is an asset. In many situations, a woman’s presence is crucial, especially in cases involving children, rape or abuse, she said.
 
Fire house to home
 
In all directions, people rely on Powell. Depending on the hour, she could be saving lives, a hero without the cape.
 
She’s also a mentor, working as a preceptor for the county, training new responders and teaching firefighting classes or EMT courses.
 
But, when the sirens stop, Powell comes home to wails of a different kind as a mom of four young children.
 
Constant exertion at work could wear anyone down, says Gaddis — especially working moms. “They’re working just as hard as their husbands, but when they come home, [there are] expectations to do the bulk of the housework.”
 
Powell finds stability in her whirlwind of daily action in her husband, who also works as a medic and firefighter. Early in their relationship, he worked as a dispatcher and could hear her in action on the radio.
 
“There are certain calls that worry him,” she says. “He listens to the scanner … but, he’s also confident in my skills and ability.”
 
For Will, her husband’s support helped counter the people who asked, “Why don’t you just join the ladies’ auxiliary, instead of running into buildings on fire?”
 
This kind of support is important for anyone, according to Gaddis.
 
“I think that the challenge, really, is good communication between [the person and] their significant other,” she advised.
 
Career coaching, which CPS offers, can also help women and men alike find a sense of fulfillment and well-being.
 
“The bottom line is, people, regardless of their gender, should find the career or vocational track that they really enjoy,” Gaddis says, “so they can find meaning and purpose in their work.”
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