A force to be reckoned with

Only 4.4 percent of the Colorado Springs Fire Department sworn personnel are female. But although their numbers are small, their impact is large. [Express photo/Bryan Oller]

A small-but-talented cadre of women firefighters proves this isn’t just a man’s job

On a cold January afternoon, Colorado Springs Fire Lieutenant-Paramedic Rachael Staebell, 40, took a quick inventory of a ladder truck at Colorado Springs Fire Station 4. The facility, located in the Stratton Meadows neighborhood a few blocks from the Harrison School District 2 headquarters, houses an engine, the ladder truck and eight sworn firefighters. On this particular day, four of the eight on duty were women. 

Staebell was joined by drivers Rebekah Wisham and Shelly Martinez, and trainee firefighter Sandra Thomas. 

What had been a busy morning melded into a busy afternoon when the call came: A young child needed medical care. 

Staebell, Paramedic Austin Pugh, Thomas and Wisham sprang into action and piled into the massive engine.

“Part of the reason we get into this job is because we love the humanity of it,” Staebell said. “We love the people.” 

Honoring Hestia

The ancient Greeks worshiped a goddess named Hestia. She was the queen of hearth and fire, and a protector of the home. 

That’s an appropriate analogy for the small-but-mighty female force of the region’s firefighters. Through a series of open records requests, we performed a gender and rank analysis of the Denver, Colorado Springs, Aurora and Pueblo fire squads. We analyzed sworn fire personnel numbers, but did not consider civilian support staff. 

The 1,020-member strong Denver squad is the state’s largest. With 54 women (roughly 5.2 percent), it also has the area’s largest female cadre. The capital city’s female leadership includes one division chief, an assistant chief, a captain and four lieutenants. 

Aurora, with its 432-member squad, was the second-largest surveyed, but with its 8.1 percent female force rate, was the most representative on a per-staff basis. The 35 women on the squad include a deputy chief, a fire commander, a battalion chief and a lieutenant.

The Springs was the lowest of the bunch, in terms of percentages of women. The force boasts 429 members, 19 (4.4 percent) of whom are women. Female officers include a battalion chief, a captain and five lieutenants. 

WHAT’S THE WORD?

Colorado Springs Fire Chief Ted Collas recently codified his department’s policy on inclusion and culture, and printed it out on cards for department staff. Here’s what it says:

 

Of sisters and mentors

Staebell’s firefighting career has roots in an ambulance. She was an emergency medical technician (EMT), but in 2000 she was quietly recruited into the fire department.

Maybe “mentored” is a better word. 

A female firefighter informally suggested that Staebell, an athletic woman with a can-do, team-focused attitude, might want to consider a change. 

“Those gals had a grassroots effort where they reached out to women in the community and said, ‘Hey, I think you would be a good fit,’” she said. “There’s such a sisterhood to it.”

It turned out the mentor was mostly right: Staebell was a great fit. She joined the Fountain Fire Department, where she stayed through 2003. In 2005, the Colorado Springs force became her fire home, and she earned her lieutenant’s helmet in 2016. 

Qualifying for the force is no easy task.

In Colorado Springs, the process includes rigorous physical, aptitude and knowledge tests and an EMT certification. Candidates must be at least 18 years old by their hire date, have a high school diploma or GED, meet the department’s minimum testing scores, be a U.S. citizen, be a legal driver in Colorado and pass a background check. 

Then there’s the 17-week academy.  The intensive program gives local cadets a real-time taste of the job, and those who make it through the rigorous program receive national certifications in wildland firefighting and HazMat operations, in addition to firefighting, according to the department website. From there, it’s on to a year probation for new team members, who, once completed, become level II firefighters.

Just as she was mentored through the process by a veteran female firefighter, Staebell has guided many sisters in the force. She is a member of and mentor for the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, and encourages female firefighters across the nation. 

Culture club

Firefighting is historically a man’s world, and the numbers show men still dominate the industry. There’s no doubt it’s a taxing job, with its heavy equipment, uniforms and burdens; but in this post-#MeToo world, is it a safe one for women? 

In Colorado Springs, yes, Staebell said. 

 “ ‘Male-dominated’ is not an excuse for poor behavior,” she said. “There is no place for harassment or assault.” 

She credited Chief Ted Collas for establishing a zero-tolerance policy that protects and promotes diversity of background, experiences and opinions. 

Diversity within a company is critical, Staebell said, because the work takes firefighters to the frontlines of tragedy. Whether at a burning building or a severe car crash, every company member brings experiences that can shape how the team responds. So they must be able to rely on one another, both at the scene and when processing things afterward. 

“It’s important that you can go through the crap you see on a daily basis and know that team will be there in the unloading process,” Staebell said. “Diversity means diversity of thought, diversity of problem solving.” 

Department spokesman Capt. Brian Vaughan started his fire career with the force at 35. He was stationed in Southeast, he said, and his mentor and boss was Jayme McConnellogue. Today she is a battalion chief and the department’s top-ranking woman. 

McConnellogue helped shape Vaughan’s career, and in turn he takes seriously the task of shaping the next generation’s. 

“Sometime’s the role-model’s job … to help guide these young males,” he said. “No matter of gender or color, people make mistakes. 

“Regardless of gender, we’re all in this together.” 

Regan.foster@southeastexpress.org

BY THE NUMBERS

The Express completed a series of open records requests regarding the gender and rank of sworn personnel in five major Front Range fire departments. Here is what we found:

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