Women firefighters

From left: Lisa Breneman, Fire Department Mount Joy; Irene Fitzkee, Lancaster Township Fire Department; and Suzi Sutton, Lafayette Fire Company.

From the winter 2020 edition of Balance magazine

It took a few emails and phone calls to get Lisa Breneman, Irene Fitzkee and Suzi Sutton – all busy professionals and volunteer firefighters based in Lancaster County – in the same room for an interview. Of course, there was no guarantee it was going to go uninterrupted.

“People can’t choose when they have emergencies,” Sutton said.

When Breneman and Sutton arrived at Station 66, the home of Fitzkee’s Lancaster Township Fire Department, for this interview, the officer in charge of the station told them if an alarm went off they’d be riding along. Sure enough, two-thirds of the way through the interview, the siren sounded five times and the women automatically got up and began putting on their gear. 

The gear can weigh around 60 pounds – with tools it’s closer to 80 pounds – and firefighters need to be able to put everything on as quickly as possible in order to improve response time and, ultimately, have a better chance to save lives and property. In less than two minutes the women had their gear on and then they jumped on the truck and sped off.

After the engine roared away and the siren ceased, it was quiet in the station house and the silence reminded me of something Breneman said about the demands of, and overall shortage of, volunteer firefighters.

“It’s a needed resource in the community,” Breneman said. “I don’t know what we would do without volunteer firefighters. Try to get the public to realize what would happen if they called 911 and nobody came.”

Sixty-five of the county’s 67 fire companies are completely volunteer, according to Duane Hagelgans, first vice president of the Lancaster County Fire Chiefs Association.

“I did a national study a few years back, which included all of Lancaster County and fire companies around the nation,” Hagelgans said of the volunteer shortage. “It is bleak.”

“We have to go out short-staffed a lot.” Fitzkee said.

“That firetruck is set for six people, and everybody has a job. If there’s only three people there, you have to decide who is doing what quickly. We very rarely have six,” Fitzkee said.

Volunteers don’t get paid. And besides working full-time jobs, volunteers must also spend hundreds of hours training and educating themselves about proper firefighting techniques. That’s hundreds of hours away from their families and jobs – and that’s before they even go out on actual calls. Some local fire companies go out on around 500 to 700 calls per year. 

“It’s a very conscious decision to spend this much time doing something that gives you zero dollars,” Sutton said. 

“Most of us in the fire service don’t even think twice about it,” Breneman said. “It’s just what we do and we love it.  But helping those around us to understand it and not take it for granted is the key to keep our volunteer fire service alive.”

Hagelgans is not aware of any specific data on female firefighters, but women have been serving in local fire companies for decades, and he believes all county fire companies have at least some women in their ranks. Hagelgans says the fire chiefs association makes sure to market to women, letting them know that firefighting is not a male-only profession or avocation.

For volunteers, and especially for mothers with full-time jobs, volunteering is a balancing act.

“When I was younger I’d get up anytime day or night and go,” Breneman said. “One time we had a barn fire we were at for eight hours, and I went home and showered and then went to work for eight hours. When my kids were just toddlers it was tough because you have to find a babysitter if your spouse isn’t home. As a female that’s a little tougher.” 

The life of a volunteer firefighter isn’t  easy, and committed volunteers are hard to come by.

“Really only 50 to 60% of new applicants that come in stay,” Breneman said. “Some come in and realize what training requirements are expected and they just don’t want to stick with it.”

It’s not only the time commitment, but there’s the physicality of the job. Sutton, a professional international field hockey umpire and former Division 1 field hockey and basketball player, said some of the volunteers she’s worked with are among the best athletes she’s ever seen. 

"I wish more athletes would see this as an opportunity to volunteer and give their time," Sutton said. "Put this gear on and try being active with all the weight on your back. Sports have prepared me well, but it’s also taught me that I might have been a Division 1 athlete, but I have a long way to go as far as being a Division 1 firefighter.”

Sutton is still in the early years of her volunteering career. Breneman and Fitzkee have a combined 56 years of responding to emergency calls.

“Back then women in the fire service weren’t seen in the same light,” Fitzkee said.

“It was harder back then. It’s a lot more accepting now. The night I got voted in a guy said, ‘We’ve got a bet on how long it is until we can run you out of here like we did all the other women before you.’ I’ve beat them all. Every one of them.”

Watch for the spring issue of Balance on March 19.