Female firefighters a boon for struggling companies
Across New York state, 90 percent of fire departments are operated solely by volunteers — and virtually all of them need more.
A large but untapped demographic may be the key to providing service: According to the U.S. Fire Administration, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, women are vastly underrepresented in the ranks. Only 1 in 10 volunteer firefighters is female.
This weekend, the Firefighters Association of the State of New York is organizing RecruitNY, an annual event in which fire departments host open houses to show off their equipment and explain what they do and how to volunteer.
Women contemplating the pros and cons of joining a fire company don’t have to look beyond the Highlands for role models.
Dawn Baisley has been a firefighter with the Cold Spring Fire Co. for 11 years. She had convinced her son to join, in part to bolster his community service credentials for college applications. But she had an unexpected reaction while watching his training sessions.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is really interesting; this is what I want to do,’ ” she recalled.
Baisley has since completed more than 500 hours of training and is qualified to fight fires both outside and inside buildings. She recently finished training for electric-vehicle fires.
She has served as the department’s safety officer, completed officer training as a first and second lieutenant and serves on the fire company’s board of directors.
“I like being able to help people, especially on some of the worst days of their lives,” she said. “And I love challenging myself.”
Some calls stick more than others. One of the worst for Baisley involved a boy who had fallen into a quarry. “He didn’t make it,” she recalled. “We had to bring him out.”
Baisley is also part of the new Putnam County Technical Rescue Team. Its first call involved a horse in North Salem stuck in mud up to its chest.
As one of four women at the Cold Spring department, she has straightforward advice for women contemplating becoming a volunteer. “You’re capable of more than you know,” she said. “Don’t hold back or worry about what somebody else thinks. If you’re feeling it, go for it.”
Wendy Heintz is one of two female firefighters with the Garrison Volunteer Fire Co. Now a second assistant chief, she joined 26 years ago because her husband was a member. She said she hadn’t realized women could serve as firefighters.
“Garrison is small,” Heintz said. “We can use all the manpower and womanpower we can get.”
12 Spy Pond Road, Garrison
Sunday, April 23 | 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
1616 Route 9
Sunday, April 23 | 9 a.m. – Noon
2582 South Avenue
Saturday, April 22 | 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Because many volunteer firefighters work outside the area, daytime calls can pose a challenge. “But I’m home and close to the firehouse,” she said. “I can go on calls during the day when getting people can be difficult.”
Kristin Van Tassel, one of five female firefighters with the North Highlands Fire Co. in Philipstown, joined when her father, John Noschese, was the chief.
That was 34 years ago. She is qualified as an interior firefighter but admits age is a factor. “As fit as I like to think I am, I’m 50, and after a good training day I feel it in my shoulders, my back,” she said. “And that’s in a controlled environment.”
“The amount of training required is the hardest part” of the job, Van Tassel said. “It’s like a second job that you don’t get paid for.”
She said recent brush fires have been exhausting and time-consuming. “It’s physically demanding,” Van Tassel said. “A firefighter might have had plans for the weekend but spent 16 hours fighting brush fires over two days,” as happened last weekend in Garrison.
There are also emotional challenges.
“I’ve been to some serious car accidents, attempted to save people’s lives and seen them die,” she said.
So why does she still do it?
The camaraderie of the “brotherhood/sisterhood” is an important plus, she said. “We do a lot of social events, within our firehouse and with other fire departments,” she said. “You meet a lot of new people, similar people.
“Firefighting is unique, a different kind of volunteering,” she said. “Your goal is to help protect life and property; it’s a dedication and a gratification like no other.”
She thinks necessity has made gender less of an issue in firefighting than years ago. “Volunteerism is hurting across the board, in every organization,” she said. “There is no room for discrimination.”
The Beacon Fire Department has both paid firefighters and volunteers. Kari Lahey, the department’s first full-time female firefighter, was hired in 2020. Its other female firefighter, Juliann Ettinger, is a volunteer who joined four years ago after volunteering with the East Fishkill Fire Department for a year.
SENATOR VISITS — Sen. Chuck Schumer visited the Cold Spring Fire Co. on April 10 to announce a plan to allocate $16.5 million in federal funding for first responders in the Hudson Valley. Schumer was joined by officials from the Cold Spring, North Highlands and Garrison fire companies and Philipstown Supervisor John Van Tassel. (Photo provided)
Ettinger feels women interested in firefighting need to prioritize getting and staying in shape, and physical strength.
“When 5-inch hose lines are charged, every 1-foot section contains a gallon of water,” she said. “Hundreds of feet of hose get extremely heavy.”
Gender matters, she said, but only in terms of muscular strength. “Men typically put on muscle better than women,” she said. “A 6-foot-2, 220-pound man carrying 75 pounds of gear” is one thing, she said. “But I’m 5-foot-7, 150 pounds — that gear is half my body weight.”
That, she said, is why, especially as a woman, she never downplays the importance of strength and physical fitness.
Although the fire company is nearly all men, Ettinger said she has been welcomed and supported since Day One. “Every one of my instructors, my lieutenant and my chief have been exceptionally encouraging,” she said. “In my training and physical tests, it’s almost like they wanted to see you make it more than the men.”
But it doesn’t make the training any easier. “There’s not a lower standard for women. There’s just the firefighter standard,” she said.
Fire companies across the state would relish seeing several Maggie Gordineers show up at the firehouse, eager to sign up. The 16-year-old is a junior firefighter with the Cold Spring company.
“I come from a long line of firefighters,” she said, including her older brother, Jack, who just finished his stint as a junior firefighter with Cold Spring and became a firefighter.
“The firehouse has been super welcoming,” Maggie said. “Everyone wants to be there, dedicating their time to help other people. It’s an uplifting environment to be in.”