Female fire power: Oak Creek welcomes 1st all-female firefighting team
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — After taking her oath of office in January, Captain Angela Bracegirdle now leads Routt County’s first all-female fire crew with her fellow Oak Creek Fire Department firefighter Harmony Drogosz.
“My philosophy is, as long as they can carry me out of a burning building, I don’t care whether they are male or female,” said Oak Creek Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup.
Wisecup, who is nearing the end of a 38-year career with the department, said the female crew came about as part of the standard regular rotation of crews, and the historical significance of the pairing never dawned on him until he saw a picture of them together.
Both women also cross-trained as EMTs.
While women are increasingly taking on leadership roles and a larger presence among fire crews across the nation, they still make up less than 10% of all firefighters. According to the National Fire Protection Association’s data for 2018, just 4% of career firefighters were female, and 11% of volunteer firefighters.
Across Routt County, there are several women on the crews of fire departments in Steamboat Springs, North Routt and West Routt.
“The only difference is maybe our technique,” Drogosz said. ”The performance, the job duties, are all the same.”
At 5 feet, 3 inches and 120 pounds, 38-year-old Drogosz is slight but strong. The job is obviously physically demanding, but the women said they meet those demands utilizing their bodies and strength in different ways.
Bracegirdle, 40, is taller at 5 feet, 8 inches but also on the slimmer side at about 125 pounds.
Full gear adds about 50 pounds.
Drogosz uses chainsaw work as an example. While a man may have more upper body strength, she said, women are able to position their body differently and utilize more lower body strength.
“We still get the same job done no matter what,” she said.
Wisecup said in his career he’s seen women outperform the men, including on endurance exercises like the wildland firefighter pack test, which consists of a 3-mile hike with a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes.
Bracegirdle has participated in female-specific training, which teaches techniques like anchoring the body while using the powerful fire hoses and ways that allow for maintaining strength over many hours.
Other skills are just learned and developed with experience, they said.
Bracegirdle and Drogosz are both career firefighters and are joined by about three other reserve and volunteer female firefighters on the department’s total roster of about 20.
Wisecup describes Bracegirdle as “my right-hand person for a number of years.” She became a paid member of the department in 2010.
Her career began about 20 years ago, when Bracegirdle’s six-month-old daughter had a fever-induced febrile seizure. When the ambulance showed up, Bracegirdle asked the EMT, “How can I do this job?”
The EMT invited her to a class.
“There was no turning back after that,” she said.
“I always enjoyed helping people,” she said, adding that she has a background in health care. “I enjoyed having that ability to make a difference in someone’s life.”
But being an EMT and firefighter gave her an added excitement and adrenaline rush.
“Every day is different,” she said.
Wisecup’s only criticism of Bracegirdle is that she loves her job a little too much. He said he often has to be very insistent about her turning off her radio and taking time off.
Drogosz joined the department about five years ago and has lived in South Routt for close to eight years. She has a background in medicine and criminal justice and was recruited by Wisecup.
The two women now act as the on-duty crew for 48 hours of every week, during which they stay at the Stagecoach Fire Station and are the first to respond to any calls across the district during that shift.
Even without a fire call, they stay busy, Drogosz said.
“It’s a lot more than sitting around waiting for bells to go off,” she said.
There are always daily tasks and training, and she describes a lot of the “little things” firefighters do, especially in a smaller rural community — like checking on elderly neighbors or giving them a ride to the clinic, helping someone shovel their driveway or changing batteries in a smoke detector that is too high to reach.
They get called to investigate suspicious odors or check on a child who slipped and fell on the ice but may not need to go to the hospital.
And getting cats out of trees. That’s a real thing, Bracegirdle said.
“When someone doesn’t know what to do, they call the fire department,” she said.
There is also an educational component — teaching community CPR and first aid classes and going into schools to teach kids about how to react in different emergency situations.
They also have been busy in recent seasons responding to wildland fires.
Bracegirdle has lived in South Routt for more than 20 years and loves the community.
“There’s a sense of family,” she said.
People express gratitude for what she does.
“And that makes a difference,” she explained. “It makes you enjoy your job.”
And of course there are the much more difficult parts of the jobs — fatal car accidents, structure fires and other traumatic events.
In terms of any differences between men and women in those situations, Drogosz and Bracegirdle said the emotion doesn’t come until after the response effort.
“In the moment, I have a job to do and am very focused and task oriented,” Bracegirdle said. “I don’t think about the loss of life until after the job is done.”
Both Bracegirdle and Drogosz said they do see a difference in their work as mothers, and particularly, in their roles as EMTs. They just have more innate empathy for both kids and parents in traumatic situations.
But Bracegirdle also noted, “I do believe under all of the gender differences, we are all human and all have a heart.”
As with any job, she said, “We all think differently and have different strengths and weaknesses.”
They said there is a strong support system throughout the county’s firefighting and first responder community that they are able to lean on and turn to after particularly traumatic calls.
Wisecup said one of the biggest difference he’s seen is that women, to him, make better EMTs, because of that maternal, more empathetic instinct.
Being a mother also brings a different aspect to being away from home for longer stretches, and never knowing when they may have to go into a dangerous situation.
Bracegirdle has a daughter who is 20 years old and an 18-year-old son who joined the Oak Creek Fire Department just a few months ago.
Her husband, Ralph Bracegirdle, worked as a firefighter and EMT in Oak Creek for 15 years. He was about six months behind her in initially signing up as a volunteer, Bracegirdle said.
She’s used to working on a team with her husband, but said she responding to calls with her son is a little different. It brings some extra worry and fear, she said, but she’s also proud.
“It’s a job that takes a lot of skill and ability,” she said. “And sometimes takes you to places that are a little more dangerous — like you might feel if your kid goes into the military.”
Drogosz has an 11-year-old son and a daughter who is 17.
“The kids worry every time I leave the house,” she said. “Especially on fire deployments when we are gone for an extended amount of time.”
Drogosz said she always checks in when she can.
“I reassure them we had a great day even if it wasn’t. The kids don’t need to hear that, and we tell them we love them and will see them soon.”
Marnie Smith is one of three full-time female firefighters with Steamboat Fire and Rescue. She has been with the department for 14 years, and has two kids — ages six and 13.
Smith said there was a long stretch where she was the only female, and she’s happy to have others on board today.
Smith is also a paramedic and vice president of Routt County Crisis Support. The group not only supports victims of fires and other trauma, but the responders as well. Bracegirdle and Drogosz said it has been a very positive part of their larger support system.
On being a mom, one memory that sticks out in Smith’s mind was after she had her baby when she would be using a breast pump and having to suddenly turn it off when an emergency call came in.
But Smith just views those challenges as a way to improve her multitasking skills.
“It is an amazing opportunity for me to be a full-time firefighter paramedic and a full-time mom at the same time,” she said.
Drogosz and Bracegirdle both said they have faced discrimination or have been treated differently as women in a male-dominated profession, but they said it wasn’t malicious.
They said it often manifests in their male counterparts not necessarily meaning to discriminate.
“It’s more coming in and doing the job for me instead of letting me do the job,” Bracegirdle said.
“It can just be the gentleman coming out,” Drogosz added.
Wisecup deals with that too, at times — the men “not letting the women do what they are capable of simply because of their gender.” He reminds them they are equals.
“If I trust them to go inside a burning structure with me, then everyone else should trust them,” he said.
Both women say on the whole, they are well supported.
“We have great guys we work with,” Drogosz said. “And all the hard work we put into the job proves we are worthy, so the respect is there.”
Of her South Routt colleagues and their historic accomplishment, Smith said she feels proud.
“I’m super proud of those guys down there,” Smith said. “What a powerful team they will make.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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