Female South Bay firefighters shine a light on their careers with the Los Angeles County Fire Department and offer a glimpse at the women behind the badges and uniforms.
- Written byDiane E.
From the days of fire bucket brigades with leather-strapped wooden buckets passing through lines of anxious toiling hands … to elbow grease and dragropes steering water pumpers … to the first self-propelled American steam fire engine and the fire trucks on the streets today, women firefighters have made great sacrifices in the throes of emergencies, devastation and tragedy.
Nearly two centuries ago, a merchant’s slave named Molly Williams, donning a dress and apron, stepped in alongside a team of volunteer firemen, grabbed a rope and helped pull a pumper to a fire in New York City. Molly, also known as volunteer #11, was the first woman firefighter in U.S. history—a trailblazer for many women in the years to follow.
In stark contrast to Molly’s life as a slave, in the mid-1800s a 15-year-old California heiress, Lillie Hitchcock Colt, jumped in to help pull an engine to a fire on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Afterwards, she was so enthralled with firefighting that oftentimes when she heard the bell toll, she dropped what she was doing to help. Eventually Lillie became a celebrated honorary member of the San Francisco Knickerbocker Engine Company.
During World War II, women throughout the United States filled the firefighting vacancies left behind by men who were serving our country in the military abroad.
Women continued to volunteer to fight fires for many years following the war.
After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, making it illegal for discrimination against women who applied for firefighter jobs, Kings County in California became home to one of two fire companies in the country solely staffed by women. By the mid-1970s, in California and throughout the U.S., women began making careers of firefighting.
As we turn the American history pages from Molly Williams in 1818 to our own Los Angeles County Fire Department in 2013, women proudly serve in various ranks and positions among the 3,000 firefighters in the county. Among them are South Bay residents Captain Jeane Barrett, Shannon Olson and Sara Rathbun. Together, these three women share the challenges of working in a career dominated by men—constantly risking their lives serving and caring for total strangers.
CALL OF DUTY
There is something special that resides at the core of people who choose to selflessly serve others—a driving force and a call of duty to unquestionably risk your own life for another. Though their lives are vastly different and unique, there is a common thread woven through the journeys of these three extraordinary women: Each knew very early on what her life purpose was.
Redondo Beach resident Captain Jeane Barrett, a 15-year firefighting veteran and 24-year lifeguard who currently works at Station #70 in Malibu and #55 on Catalina Island, reflects, “I had good people in my life. One tricked me into becoming a lifeguard when I was a senior in high school. It opened my world to careers that I hadn’t even thought of. Full-time lifeguard or firefighter was not in my plans. But when I was in college, I realized that a desk wasn’t for me. I had developed a need for adrenaline.”
Shannon Olson, a mother of two young daughters and a 13-year veteran firefighter at Station #106 in Rolling Hills Estates, was also inspired while a teenager to become a firefighter. “I always wanted a job that was exciting, outdoors and allowed me to help people. I never thought that women were allowed to be firefighters … until one day at the L.A. County Fair, I saw a female firefighter. I was 17 at the time. Right then I knew what I wanted to do. A year later, I was an emergency medical technician, and I did CPR on a man while I was on vacation. I saw him the next day at the hotel—alive and well—and I knew that I had helped save him.”
Following in her father’s footsteps was a career intention for Sara Rathbun, a seven-year firefighter paramedic and K9 handler at Station #158 in Gardena. “I was actually on track to become a deputy sheriff like my father. When I spoke to him about my career choice, he encouraged me to apply for the fire department as well, so that I could be more involved with the emergency medicine side of public service. I am thankful every day for his advice.”
Regardless of gender, the physical rigors and mental demands of a firefighting career are unfathomable by anyone who has not stepped into a firefighter’s boots. From carrying 70 pounds of gear into a burning building to witnessing someone perish to delivering a baby, the work is unpredictable and oftentimes grueling. Compounding the challenges for women are the physical and emotional aspects that differentiate the genders.
“I came into this blind,” says Jeane. “I was accepted as a woman lifeguard by 90% of my peers. I never expected the challenges I have faced as a woman . I’ll flat-out say I was ignorant. It has made me question myself at times because of my gender. I can remember multiple times asking myself, ‘Could I have made a bigger difference if I was a man? Am I strong enough?’ I am smarter than that now, but it was an obstacle.”
With their unconventional careers also come irregular schedules. For Sara, this is one of her greatest challenges. “It is one thing to get used to a different schedule— eating and sleeping at work and being on call 24-7. It is quite another to ask someone you love to do the same. It takes a very independent, patient, dedicated partner to provide the kind of support we need for the type of job we have.”
According to Shannon, “Being a woman on the job was hard at first. Being a very young woman was even harder. I always had to prove myself. But I feel like things have gotten better for women. Now the hard part is juggling a family and a career. I miss my children when I am not at home, and I know it is hard on my husband to have a wife that is gone so much.”
As for their days on duty now, their reality is contrary to popular perception. With a smile, Sara shares, “We do not just sit around at the station, shining the rig, waiting for fires. We run medical calls most of the day and night. If we aren’t busy with those, we spend our time drilling, studying, working out and constantly trying to be better firefighters.”
When asked how being a firefighter has shaped their lives, all three women shared that their on-the-job experience has taught them to not take the everyday stressors of life too seriously.
“I appreciate every day because I have seen how precious life is. I have also learned not to sweat the small stuff. Nothing is worth stressing out about,” says Shannon.
According to Sara, “I think that it has changed my perspective on what is a big deal and what is not. It turns out most things that we worry about are really just bumps in the road. It is really nice to feel like I can handle anything that comes along.”
A sense of humor is a mainstay for Jeane. “I think we all get jaded a little. But I have learned some things that make me such a better person,” she says. “I can always find something good or positive to take from a bad situation.”
Though their memories and life-altering experiences are countless among them, each holds some moments very dear to her heart.
Especially life-changing for Sara was being partnered with her K9 search and rescue dog. “Raider was on death row in a shelter, and a Humane Society worker noticed his obsession with the tennis ball she was holding. She sent his info to the Search Dog Foundation, and the rest is history. He is amazing at his job and the best partner I could ask for!”
For Shannon: “Having my grandmother pin my badge on me at the graduation ceremony was amazing. She just passed away recently, and I know that I will always treasure that moment. Also, coming on scene to a newly born baby that was not breathing and had no pulse and then bringing the baby back to life was a great moment.”
“Really I think the best week of my life was the week I got to ride in a Hovercraft, ride in a helicopter dropping water on a brush fire and rescue people off a sailboat in rough seas,” shares Jeane. “I had to pinch myself. I work for a fire department with resources that allowed me such opportunities.”
Unwinding and personal rewards are key to balancing the demands and stress for these dedicated women. Being a mom centers Shannon. “I love to play with my kids, exercise, go to the beach or swim in a pool with my family. Reading has also always been a great way to unwind.”
Jeane’s second calling is the ocean. “The ocean is my sanity. I like to keep my mind hydrated with salt water! And if it floats, I paddle it!” she says.
Paddle it she does, most notably as a member of the Lanakila Outrigger Canoe Club in Redondo Beach. Her crew has won numerous Catalina Channel crossings and has traveled all over the world to race as far away as New Zealand and Australia.
Travel and competitive fitness are also high on Sara’s off-duty decompression list. She just returned from Ireland with a bronze medal in rugby (tackle rugby, by the way) at the World Police and Fire Games.
“I took up rugby in college and was an All-American by my second year,” Sara relates. So when I heard about the games, I put together a few girls from across the nation and went to Belfast, Northern Ireland. We had a great time, socialized with other women in our career and won a bronze medal to boot!”
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When asked if and how they would encourage young women to become firefighters today, all three ladies candidly offered careful considerations and advice.
“I would start by encouraging them to take EMT courses and get a job in that field to make sure they are comfortable with the medicine, because that is 80% of our job,” says Sara. “Next I would advise them to get involved in sports in as many ways as they can. I would tell them to lift weights, and I would tell them to work harder than everyone else so they might be lucky enough to get one of the best jobs on the world. Beyond the reasons that it is valuable to men, it provides a confidence and a strength that is not always available to women in other jobs.”
Shannon says, “In my opinion, it is not a good fit for some women. I don’t have any female friends who would want to do it. But as long as you know what you are getting into and you have a passion for the job, then it could be the best thing you have ever done. I absolutely love my job.”
And Jeane adds, “There are a ton of women out there that are perfect for this job. You have just got to know what you are getting yourself into and have the right personality for it, which is true of men and women. It’s still not perfect for all women, and it’s hard. I never sugarcoat it. If you are up for the challenge, then you are perfect for the fire department.”
For future firefighters and those who serve today, regardless of gender, there’s an ever-present silent code of ethics and a family camaraderie born of the call of duty. Jeane sums it up: “We have each other’s backs, love each other and would put our lives on the line for each other without hesitation.”For more information, visit the Los Angeles County Fire Department at fire.lacounty.gov.