The fire chief says having a female firefighter makes management better
When Shannon Antwin is out in public with her impressive outfit, she receives a lot of comments, questions, and stares. “What do I call you?” one girl asked.
Antoine said the fireman is fine.
She knows she is a role model and would like to see more female firefighters. “The females add another dimension to the department,” said Antoine.
There is an event on May 9th – sponsored by the Women’s Non-Traditional Employment Association – to learn about firefighting/EMS job opportunities.
Antwin began her career as a firefighter after realizing that pursuing a business major at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater was not the right fit. When she saw a woman in a rescue outfit on campus, she asked about it.
After she took her first rescue class, Antwine was hooked. She has now been in the emergency service/fire services for the past 18 years, including nearly three years as the assistant chief of the Franklin Fire Department.
“I fell in love with her,” she said. “I love the atmosphere and helping people. You help them in their worst time.”
Courtney Hull, associate dean at Waukesha County Technical College for Firefighting/EMS Training who has also worked as a professional firefighter/EMT since 2003, said recruiting women can help a shortage of firefighters.
“Every department hurts workers,” Hull said. “There could be no better time than now for women to seek a job in the Fire Service. With the current recruitment crisis and small candidate pools, the services need a larger pool of candidates to recruit from.”
The staffing shortage is familiar to Waukesha Fire Department Assistant Chief Joseph Hoffman.
“We used to have 300 to 400 applicants for one or two jobs,” said Hoffman. “We may (now) get dozens of applicants (for a job).”
“A diverse workplace makes us better,” says the fire chief.
Greenfield Fire Chief John Cohn remembers when his two daughters would regularly ask questions about the female firefighters in his department.
“(The presence of female employees) gives them motivation and confidence, because (firefighters) have broken barriers,” he said. “It’s great that these top models are out there.”
Having a female firefighter “better represents our communities,” he said.
“A diverse workplace makes us better.” Cohn said there are currently six female firefighters in his department.
Hoffman, whose department includes seven female firefighters, said having a diverse team can build stronger relationships and help the community.
“I can’t say enough that diversity only leads to better service,” said Hoffman. “The more we parallelize the community, the better.”
According to the National Fire Protection Association, 9% of the total number of firefighters in the United States are women. For the Waukesha and Milwaukee County fire departments contacted regarding this story, about 16% had female firefighters.
However, the WCTC is seeing an increase in the following of female firefighters.
In 2014, 13.2% of the students in WCTC’s firefighting classes were female. That rose to 31.2% in 2023.
“As women, we have a great opportunity to be kind and compassionate service providers.”
On one occasion when Hal answers a unique call, her co-workers are happy that they are working with a woman firefighter: she had to give birth to a baby.
“Birthing babies in the field is not normal, but the one time I did, my crew members were obviously happy to be there to take the lead,” she said.
Responding to pediatric emergencies is another area where firefighters and female EMS personnel can be very helpful, Hull said.
“Pediatric emergencies are always a difficult call for any EMS responder, and I have often felt a pediatric patient drawn into my care,” she added.
She said fire departments also handle EMS calls more than strict fire emergencies, and staff are trained for both calls.
“If it was a sick or injured child, a female in a domestic violence (condition) or in childbirth, the crew members looked to me to take over,” Hull explains. “We’ve made[female presence]more inclusive.”
Shannon Richter, a firefighter with the Greenfield Fire Department, added that as a female, she tries to take control and de-escalate the situation when there is a “fighting or angry patient.”
“I feel like people generally respond better to a female[rather than]a male co-worker trying to do the same thing in this scenario,” she said.
Antwin added that when there is an emergency situation when dealing with children, it may be helpful to have female firefighters and paramedics on the scene.
She said it was like having “another mother figure”.
Madison Krenz, who has been a firefighter since 2019 and is currently working full-time for Cambridge Area EMS and pay-as-you-go with the Western Lakes Fire District, said there was “an amazing opportunity to provide strong support to new mothers, victims of domestic violence, victims of sexual assault and patients in general.”
“We can often communicate with patients and provide an extra sense of comfort when providing emergency care,” Krenz said. “For mothers who work as paramedics, they can act as a support to mothers when providing care to pediatric patients. In general, we as women have a great opportunity to be kind and compassionate providers.”
Hoffman added, “We need all kinds. It’s been a lot of focus on the physical side. It’s also the element of emotion, compassion and empathy.”
Performing tasks differently than men can be more effective
Some women may have smaller shoulders, smaller overall, and, therefore, may be more slender than their male counterparts, Hull said. For this reason, women could be lifted into smaller spaces or climbed onto one’s shoulders to reach windows more easily.
Such was the case for Hull.
“I can tell they appreciate my presence. There are unique things,” Hull said. “I can fit into tight spaces.” She said this was useful for rescues in “confined spaces”.
Hull also said that women usually use their bodies differently and said that she has found that they can do identical or even better tasks than men.
She had to learn the hard way when she was training for the Candidate Physical Ability Test – a physical test that firefighter candidates must pass that includes climbing stairs, pulling hose, carrying equipment, forcibly entering, lifting and extending ladders.
Hull said she worked for weeks building up her upper body strength. “When I showed up to take the CPAT exam, my legs gave out from second to last because I wasn’t properly prepared as a candidate,” she said.
One firefighter saw her struggle and said, “Try this,” and taught Hal to use her legs, core, and whole body more than her upper body alone. “Women have a low center of gravity and therefore often have strength in different areas,” she said.
“I went back to the gym for three months and focused on core and lower body strength and the next time I passed the CPAT with over a minute to spare,” she said.
Changing the perspective of what a firefighter should look like
When Richter was in high school in the late 1990s, she took a career interest test. She demonstrated firefighting skills, but the staff at her high school pushed her toward nursing and teaching—professions dominated by women.
“I felt (fighting the fires) was not an option,” Richter said. “It suited my interests but wasn’t presented as an option. I love working as a crew, helping people, solving problems, and seeing crazy scenarios.”
She remembers Hull as one of the females in her firefighting class, her instructor asking her to stay after class. Offer her another option to get a textbook in case the book the class is using is too difficult for her. But she didn’t need it, she was almost a direct student.
Richter and Hall find that the “spotlight” shines on them, being female, and they feel compelled to prove themselves. “I find that people have this ‘look.’ It’s like I don’t have the strength to do that,” Richter said.
But Hull said that is changing.
The image that fire departments were “good old people’s clubs,” she said, is changing, and at WCTC, the culture is changing, too. “It’s the mindset that anyone can come with and succeed,” she said.
Krens said that when she tells people she is a firefighter, “their eyes widen.”
“Being female and a fighter can be a rare discovery,” she said. I am always proud to serve with so many strong and resilient women. Many years ago, women would never have had the opportunity to work as firefighters. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not grateful to be working as one today,” she said.
“It is very important to me to always represent women in the fire service with integrity, pride and gratitude.”
For more information and resources about becoming a firefighter
a Women in Fire / EMS event For Females Exploring Firefighter Field, featuring Krenz and Richter, will be held from 4-5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 9 at WCTC, 800 Main St. Pewaukee.
From 4 to 7 p.m. the same day, also in the WCTC lobby, there will be an opportunity to network with students, firefighters, and WCTC staff about careers in firefighting.
Christine Ciganek Schroeder Memorial ScholarshipEstablished in memory of Lt. Christine Siganek Schroeder, this scholarship supports the training of women for a career in the fire service. Inquire about the next scholarship round after June 1 at www.ignitethespiritmke.org.
Marcia Helleckson-Rosecky Memorial FundFounded to support and encourage women to become firefighters. Helleckson-Rosecky was with the volunteer fire department in Middleton before she joined the Brookfield City Fire Department in 1997. In 2016, she died of cancer at the age of 41. For more information, visit bit.ly/Scholarshipwomenfire.
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Kathy Kozlowicz can be reached at 262-361-9132 or cath[email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @kozlowicz_cathy.