WAUSAU – When it comes to fighting fires across Washington County, there’s no gender in it.
“They have to be able to go on a breathing apparatus, they have to climb ladders, they have to go through the same burn building as anybody else,” Washington County Fire Service Coordinator Rick Kerr said of female firefighters. “Whatever’s asked in the class, they have to be able to perform.”
“There’s no gender in it,” he added.
Of the county’s 135 volunteer firefighters, 11 are women. Most women at local fire and rescue departments begin in supportive services, such as answering calls and routing fire trucks on fire calls through traffic, according to Kerr.
However, Kerr said, all of Washington County’s female firefighters have moved beyond support and into a State of Florida Firefighter 1 training standard, which requires individuals to complete 206 hours in fire tactics training; or, Fire 2 status, qualified to be employed as firefighter.
Others, such as volunteer firefighter Janet Churchwell, have obtained emergency medical technician certifications.
“I realized the need in our county during the daytime, when nobody’s there – because everybody’s at work,” Churchwell, 52, of Greenhead Fire Department, said of the reason she initially joined the department back in 2007.
“It’s a positive feeling,” she later said.
About six years ago, Rebecca Owens, 25, joined Wausau Fire and Rescue, along with her husband and father. She knows what it feels like to lose a home to a fire.
“It was devastating to watch,” she said of a childhood fire. “That was our only house; (by the) time we got there, there was nothing left.”
On Sept. 11, Annette Owens, 40, of Vernon, will start training to become a volunteer firefighter. She says she has supported her husband, Vernon Fire Chief Mike Owens, for several years.
“I was at the fire department a lot, helping out with fundraisers and whatever else they needed,” Annette Owens said. “And I wanted to actually go through it, that way I can assist the firefighters.”
According to a 2015-16 Washington County Board of Commissioners Annual Report, using a 2015 $1.16 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the county has better managed fire and rescue services by appropriately staffing stations with level 1 and 2 Florida firefighters.
Response times decreased by 75 percent, with the average volunteer response time being seven to nine minutes to the station before responding to the call, according to the report.
“Not many people do what volunteers do -- they risk their lives and ask for nothing,” Kerr said. “It’s a calling.”
Although, the SAFER grant allots some monies toward giving stipends to volunteer firefighters, being committed to public safety, the firefighters in this article submit, is a matter of staying grounded in the original motivation for joining the force initially: helping others.
“I’m prepared to do whatever I’m qualified to do,” Annette Owens said. “You want to go in and save everybody -- not that it’s always going to happen. But, in my mind, that is the main goal.”
“Regardless whether it’s a house fire, a wreck, that’s somebody’s worst day,” Rebecca Owens said. “To know that we can make it better in any way possible is the drive to do it.”
And in the heat of a blaze, bunked-out in 150 pounds of gear, Churchwell knows something about getting her thoughts together.
“I know what I can do and what I can’t do,” Churchwell said. “And I just try to remember that and do all that I can to help out.”
“One thing I’ve had to remember putting that mask on,” she added with a light chuckle, “is that you have to breathe and you have to slow down your breathing because you will panic.”