Sunday, July 21, 2024

Here’s how women in the Historic Triangle are changing the face of firefighting

Kerry Henderson (left) is just one of the many women becoming firefighters. (WYDaily/Courtesy Kerry Henderson)
Kerry Henderson (left) is just one of the many women becoming firefighters. (WYDaily/Courtesy Kerry Henderson)

In emergency situations, it can make a world of difference to see the comforting face of a firefighter and now more than ever, it is the face of a woman.

“I think females add an element of compassion and empathy,” said Sarah Crookston, a firefighter and Advanced Life Support technician with the Williamsburg Fire Department. “I’ve had a patient say ‘thank you for treating me like a human being, I’d forgotten what it felt like’ and as a woman, your heart goes out.”

Crookston is one of four female firefighters out of 44 with the WFD, but when she first started eight years ago there was only one other female.

Before becoming a firefighter, Crookston worked as a pharmaceutical chemist and a stay-at-home mom. After a death in her family, she said she became drawn to the firefighter profession and after becoming a volunteer, fell in love with the job.

She said it’s a profession she hadn’t considered before, partially because she hadn’t seen many female firefighters.

Kerry Henderson, battalion chief with the James City County Fire Department, agreed with that sentiment.

“I told people I wanted to be a nurse, because a lot of women were nurses,” she said. “I didn’t think about firefighter because I didn’t see women like me.”

When Henderson returned home from college, she started volunteer firefighting with a friend which eventually led her to the profession.

For both Henderson and Crookston, there were unexpected challenges to entering a male-dominated field. 

“There’s an underlying sense of feeling like you need to prove yourself because you’re not one of those big strong guys,” Crookston said. “For me, that meant coming in early to practice with the chainsaws or lifting heavy equipment. You’re being looked at as ‘Can she do it?’ And you have to prove you can.”

Betsy Sink (right) said that going through the fire academy taught her how to push past her physical comfort zone. (WYDaily/Courtesy Betsy Sink)
Betsy Sink (right) said that going through the fire academy taught her how to push past her physical comfort zone. (WYDaily/Courtesy Betsy Sink)

For Betsy Sink, a firefighter and EMS instructor for JCCFD, going through the fire academy training pushed her past her limits and she discovered she could do more than she’d ever thought.

Sink said she learned how to use her body mechanics differently than a man does so that she could get the job done.

All three women agreed that having diversity in a fire department is one of the most important aspects to making people feel comfortable in emergency situations.

“The more diverse we are, the better organization we are,” said Larry Snyder, Williamsburg deputy fire chief. “Whoever you are interacting with, there will be some level of comfort by having someone that looks like them.”

Crookston has experienced this first hand when she went to a scene that had a sick infant. As a mother of six children, Crookston said she looked at the baby’s frazzled mom and connected with her immediately. From a mother-to-mother perspective, she said, there’s a level of comfort that might not come with a man.

Snyder said as the department grows in its number of women, there are changes happening throughout the department, such as living arrangements.

For a firefighter, a third of their year is spent sleeping, eating and showering at the station. While there are updates to those buildings to provide conveniences, Snyder said many, such as the WFD which was built in 1979, weren’t designed with separate quarters for men and women.

But as more women enter the profession, departments like Williamsburg are considering their resources and devising ways to give women the privacy and comfort they need, such as turning old office space into gender-specific sleeping spaces.

While departments are working to be more diverse, Snyder said WFD isn’t specifically recruiting women. Instead, the department is looking to recruit individuals of all backgrounds.

“We are just trying to hire good people and then we can teach them the fundamentals,” he said. “But we need that foundation of just being a good person.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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