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Firewomen: The feminine side of fighting fire
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Amy Cunningham, 354th Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, adjusts her helmet March 20, 2014, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The suit is an added 40 pounds of equipment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lauren-Taylor Levin/Released)
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Firewomen: The feminine side of fighting fire

Posted 3/25/2014   Updated 3/25/2014 Email story   Print story


by Staff Sgt. Kirsten Wicker
354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

3/25/2014 - EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- All is quiet when suddenly an emergency call rings out over the speakers, filling the giant garage. Within two minutes, firefighters scramble into their gear and the fire truck is out the door.

It's not an entirely unfamiliar scene, something many young people may even dream about - a career filled with danger, unpredictability, and sometimes glory. For some, fire fighting is the stuff of fantasy and Hollywood glamour - shiny red trucks, blazing fires and the heroic brother-to-brother friendships that keep men alive in the midst of tragedy.

Here at Eielson, the 354th Civil Engineer Squadron fire units have two not-so-familiar dreamers. Senior Airman Amy Cunningham and Airman 1st Class Kaylee Goodwin don't consider themselves heroines. They happen to be female firefighters who love their job and train to be the best they can possibly be at fighting fires and saving lives and property.

"Once we put on our gear, you can't tell who is male and who is female," said Cunningham. "So if you can't cut it then you just can't cut it no matter who you are. You just have to show that you can do the job and that builds trust among your fellow fire fighters."

Cunningham, who calls Chicago home, wouldn't do anything else with her life.

"When I joined the Air Force, I was a little older, 27 years old, and I had civilian experience as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician," Cunningham said. "I told my recruiter I wanted to be a firefighter. At the time, needs of the Air Force dictated who did what and I didn't get the fire job initially."

She went on to fire technical training at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, and graduated at the top of her class with honors. She was the only female throughout the course, just up to two weeks prior to graduation when a few more arrived.

"I didn't ever feel like I had to prove myself. I knew I was capable, but as a female, you have to do the job well so others see that you can do it, and they can place their trust in you as someone who could someday save their life," Cunningham said.

Training is just as important as fighting a real fire, she says. And being capable every day throughout that training is imperative.

"If your crew chief sends you into a building during an exercise with real fire and you have to retrieve four adult-size 'dummies' that all weigh more than you and you break, then you obviously can't do the job in the real world," said Cunningham.

For Goodwin, her experience was slightly different than Cunningham's. She knew she would join the military after high school and enlisted her junior year. However, she never imagined she would become a firefighter.

"I'm glad I got this job because I really love it. I'm learning a lot here and the job really is fun and everyone has been really great bringing the rookie along. I'm happy with how things are going," she said.

She admits technical training was challenging and training on station continues to be a challenge, but she is up to the task.

"Technical school was very challenging, probably the most challenging thing I've ever done physically. It was definitely tough," said Goodwin. "There were six total female fire fighters coming into Air Force fire training at the time I went and about 270 males, so it was a bit lopsided."

The Wisconsin native has only been on station for three weeks, but she is assigned to the fire Engine, and has already been on a few calls.

"Generally they prefer to start people out on the Engine - it is the truck that makes medical and structural runs - it doesn't go out to the flightline as much," Goodwin said. "Usually there isn't a fire when we are called, but I grab my tools anyway and follow the crew chief and he tells me exactly what to do."

Goodwin says her leaders hold her to the same standards as they do her male counterparts and they expect hard work and a positive attitude.

"There are really no free passes in technical school and after - they expect the same out of everyone. You have to meet the objectives within the time frame and if you don't then you do it again or you just don't pass and get held back," she said. "Personally, I enjoy the physical aspect. It is challenging, but everyone encourages each other and we stay motivated. You're not just doing it for yourself - you're doing it for others too."

Nearly 90 percent of a firefighter's job is training and the women make sure they perform training every time they are on shift.

During the Alaska summer, training for firefighters is much more physically demanding. This is the time of year when they can go outside to train, constantly lifting things and moving around, and performing exercises that require them to handle a live, blazing fire.

"Summer training is a workout in and of itself," said Cunningham. "It's all in how you do it though. Females are just built differently - we simply don't have the upper body strength that a lot of males do. So it's all about body mechanics. It doesn't mean we can't do the job, it just means we have to do it differently. I use my legs a lot, for example, to lift weight that my upper body can't lift.

Cunningham believes the females who make it in a career in firefighting are the ones who learn to adapt and use what they have to the best of their ability.

"It's not something you can force. You have to be subtle, come in and quietly do the job and they'll see it. You have to earn the respect in the same way the males do," she said.

So when people ask Cunningham and Goodwin what it is like being a female fire fighter, what do they say?

"In a nutshell - it takes a little while to adjust. And it's my fellow fire fighters adjusting to me, not me adjusting to them, so adaptability is crucial. You literally spend 24-hours-a-day every other day, half your life, with these people so they become another family to you and it has to be treated like that," said Cunningham. "They have to trust me to go into a fire with them because lives depend on it. If they were not comfortable with my abilities and we go into a fire, then that will cause both of us to fail. It has to be worked out long before you even see a real fire."

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