June 10–Tiffany Boehmer has always considered herself “one of the guys.”
With a strong build and trademark ponytail, Boehmer has worked alongside male counterparts most of her professional career, from a fertilizer plant to volunteering on the Delmont Fire Department. But when her pager goes off, the lone woman on the Mitchell Fire Department forgets any differences between herself and her co-workers.
Suddenly her gender doesn’t matter. Nothing does, really, except the safety of everyone involved and the task at hand — battling the blaze.
Boehmer, of Parkston, is one of 14 paid female firefighters in South Dakota, so her situation is unique, but she hardly notices.
“The stuff nobody sees is how we hang out outside the station, too, and it’s like a family,” Boehmer said. “It’s really different than any other job that I’ve had. Most of my jobs have been predominantly male coworkers so I kind of have always considered myself one of the guys.”
In 2012, while working at a fertilizer plant in Delmont, Boehmer said she was prodded by her then-boss to volunteer with the Delmont Fire Department.
Now, she credits the decision to follow his advice as one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
After volunteering for the department for five years years, Boehmer said she was ready to make the hobby a lifestyle, making firefighting and emergency medical services her full-time profession, as have 421 South Dakotans — only 3.3 percent of whom are women.
And she’s the first to do so in Mitchell in several years, according to Assistant Fire Chief Paul Morris. Several years ago, there was a woman on the department, but she eventually vacated, leaving it empty for at least 15 years, Morris said.
But Boehmer likely won’t be the only woman on staff for long.
There is currently one woman in the hiring process — that can take up to three months — for a part-time position with EMS and the fire department, Morris said, and two women in the process just for EMS.
‘There’s that stigma’
South Dakota Fire Marshal Paul Merriman said the recruitment of women could help offset South Dakota and national trends that show struggles in recruiting and retaining firefighters.
In recent years, departments across the country — mainly volunteer departments — have struggled in retention and recruiting, Merriman said, likely due to the strenuous nature of the job, increase in the number of calls and major time commitment it takes to be a firefighter.
“The number of firefighters is decreasing while the demand and need continues to increase and the list of duties continues to grow,” Merriman said. “So we’re always looking at different ways we can improve recruitment numbers and … retain that talent and keep folks interested and around. Anything is good, and I think (more women) is a good start.”
The increasing interest isn’t unique to Mitchell.
Of the five non-volunteer fire departments in the state — Mitchell, Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen and Watertown — each said this week the number of women they have on their payrolls is above average.
Sioux Falls, for example, has four full-time female firefighters on staff, with two anticipated to join in the coming months, according to Battalion Chief Jim Powers. And though women have a long history of serving on the department — the first woman was hired in 1987 — Powers said he’s glad more women are seemingly recognized the “tremendous rewards” that go along with firefighting and EMS work.
In contrast, the Watertown Fire Department hired its first female employee in 2013, with its second hire in fall 2016, lagging behind the Sioux Falls department’s pace.
But both are now actively involved in recruiting more women.
Both Powers and Watertown Fire Chief Doug Kranz said they are adamant about attending college fairs, visiting high schools and colleges, and generally try to prove to anyone who’s willing to listen that firefighting is a great career opportunity for men and women.
“Firefighting has been so dominated by men, sometimes it’s just difficult, there’s that stigma there,” said Powers, a 30-year veteran of the department. “And I don’t know what draws an individual to fire service, but we hope anyone even slightly interested would give it a chance. It’s very rewarding for any person.”
The Rapid City Fire Department employs three female firefighters, while Aberdeen has four to round out the non-volunteer departments in South Dakota.
A different perspective
After filling out an application, applicants are required to take a test that checks reading comprehension and ability to do simple math, etc., then a certain percentage moves on to the interview phase. Then, the department will hire as many firefighters as it needs, on the condition that they pass their physical fitness examination, psychological examination and a background check. Interviews are conducted with family and friends of the applicant. If all goes well, the applicant is the newest member of the team.
And if that applicant is a woman, she can bring a “whole new dynamic” to the department, with unique qualities.
“Some patients or just people in general will just respond better to a female than a male,” Morris said, adding that though different genders can bring different perspectives to the department, women are subject to the same tests, training and workload as their male counterparts. “Sometimes you just get that and it’s a welcome addition to our departments.”
For women interested in following in her footsteps, Boehmer said the keys to success in firefighting are simple.
First, stay in shape and workout often. Second, don’t cause any unnecessary tension. Third, know that nobody gets special treatment.
“It’s just like any other job, if you do what you need to do and what you’re supposed to, it’ll be fine,” Boehmer said. “The physicality of it isn’t daunting if you are committed to working out and staying healthy. But, honestly, this is a really rewarding, really fulfilling job.”
By Caitlynn Peetz, The Daily Republic, Mitchell, S.D.
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