Fighting Fire

Fighting Fire

Fighting Fire

“There has never been a time within the department where I’ve gotten the message that I can’t do something because I’m a girl,” said Jodi Hepler, one of four female members of the Clinton Fire Department. It is a message that each of four women echoed about their experience in a predominantly male career. “Sometimes I think it is almost the opposite here,” she said. “There is an over-encouragement for us to do things and to succeed.”

For the first time in the department’s history, Clinton currently has four females on their fire department. Jodi Hepler and Sarah Koski both work as firefighters while Amanda Bartus and Jordan Barnett serve as EMT’s.

“I’m not very big,” said Koski. “So when people find out that I’m a firefighter, their first question is how?” It is a question that she asked herself before she began. “I was driving one day, and I saw an ambulance drive by, and I thought, that’s it. That’s what I want to do. A friend encouraged me to call Clinton, but I was worried I was too small.” Despite uncertainty, she called Clinton Fire Chief Dennis Keezer, and he invited her to talk. “I walked through the door to talk to him, and I had nothing, no experience,” she said. “Chief sat me down and gave it to me straight. He asked me if I knew what I was getting into. He told me that this was a serious job and pretty much told me about all the bad parts so I wasn’t walking into something I didn’t understand. But he thought I could do it, and he gave me a chance.”

That serious talk wasn’t given to Koski because she was female, but rather it is the same talk Chief Keezer gives to anyone who shows interest in the department. “We’ve always welcomed anyone as long as they do what everybody else is doing,” he said. "We always preach to anyone who walks in here and wants to do this work, that you can’t be here just because you want the t-shirt. This is serious work with serious life and death consequences. This group here is awesome and they fit in so well. All the guys accepted them because the guys know the females are going to have to do the same things they do. We are a department. Everyone is part of the department, and respect is given based on what you do.”

It is that foundation, that respect is based on the caliber of work, that allowed these four women to have the opportunity they each sought. These women weren’t looking for opportunities to become girl firefighters or girl EMTs. Rather, each wanted the opportunity to do the work, to serve the community, and to be respected for the caliber of their work without the modifier of being female. Clinton gave them that very opportunity. “We are very tiny,” said Hepler. “We have to prove physically that we can do this job.”

“But we figure out a way,” echoed Koski. “The great thing is that here, I don’t have to do that alone. Walking in here for the first time was pretty awkward. But everyone is so helpful and we train together and run calls together and you end up forming a bond. I have to trust these people to run into a fire with me, and they have to have my back, and I have to have theirs. They need to trust me.”

“We really do have a ton of brothers,” said Hepler. “It’s a family.”

For each of these four women, the impetus for joining the department was service. “I think it is ingrained in most people to run away from danger instead of running into it,” said Koski. “But for me, I see all this chaos going on, and I can help those people that are in the middle of chaos. I can bring calm by being brave for a moment.”

“The people we help are often having the worst day ever,” said Hepler. “You’re the one that’s coming to help them. I find it all so intriguing. I just want to go do it. I just want to help.”

For EMT Bartus, it was her son who inspired her career. He has special needs that have led to medical emergencies. After riding in the ambulance with her son, she knew she wanted to be the person who could offer the same type of help to others in similar situations. EMT Barnett sought this career path after a four wheeling accident. “I almost didn’t make it,” she said. “Being in the ambulance, and the way everyone helped me, made me want to be an EMT.”

Yet like most things, reality is often starkly different than imagination. Each of these four women found that once they started this call to service, they had to confront certain harsh realities. “You think you have an idea of what you are getting into,” said Hepler. “But when you actually get into it, it’s way different. You see things that normal people never see in their entire lives.” Hepler had a list of calls that would ultimately decide if she had what it took or not. “I decided that those calls would determine if I make it or if I don’t. If I can handle these things or I can’t. Thankfully for me, when I started getting those calls, I ended up loving my job ten times more than when I joined.”

Bartus agreed. “Usually fire is the first on scene in more rural areas. And with US 12 right here, it was a dose of reality to show up to some of these accidents,” she said. “And we are basic life support here,” added Barnett. “Sometimes it takes the ambulance a long time to arrive, and you realize you are the one keeping that person alive. But this group is amazing. We all know that we can rely on and trust each other.”

While they each wanted to be firefighters and EMTs without the modifier of girl, there is a certain pride in having the courage to do something that most women haven’t done. There is a certain pride in how their choices empower other women and girls to find the courage to do the things they want to do. “I have a daughter who is three,” said Hepler. “She is obsessed with firefighting and she has costumes and she has decided that she is going to be a firefighter when she grows up. For me that’s huge. She was watching me, and now she knows she can do that. I think that is awesome and very empowering.”

“I would tell anyone who really wants to do something that you are always going to be nervous doing something for the first time,” said Barnett. “Even now I get nervous showing up to certain calls. But you are never going to get over that fear unless you just do it.”

“My best advice to women and girls is just not to be afraid,” said Koski. “I walked through this door and was nervous. I wanted to get into a career that is predominately male. Everything about it is male. You walk in here and see trucks, equipment, chainsaws. But just don’t be afraid. I’ve learned that if it is something you want to do, then you go and earn that respect, and they’ll treat you the same, and you might even end up absolutely loving your job.”

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