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'I Keep Up Pretty Well': Why One Future Firefighter Wants More Women To Join Her

Some high-paying jobs just don’t attract many women. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1998 only 2.5 percent of firefighters were women. Fast forward to 2016, and it’s just 3.5 percent.

One North Texas training program is helping a few women buck that trend.

In her first week of fire academy at Tarrant County College, Alexis Dunn had to run up and down stairs in full gear. That’s boots, fireproof pants and jacket, heavy gloves, a helmet and an oxygen tank—all while hoisting a 45 pound hose. And the drill didn’t end there.

“Then you had to carry a 135 pound dummy, which I didn’t even know that existed until I came here," she laughs.

Into The Unknown

On this particular day, she's leading a team of three other fire academy students on a search and rescue mission into a dark, two-story building. The inside of their face masks are plastered with wax paper-- so they can’t see a thing.

Dunn guides them through the house as they crawl around the perimeter, feeling for gaps under furniture where kids or a pet could hide during an actual fire.

She’s about two thirds of the way through this training program and is excited to join up with a local fire crew. Dunn says after playing college softball at the University of Houston, she knew she needed a job that wasn’t a typical 9 to 5 office gig. She wanted to be physically active, she wanted a challenge, she wanted teammates.

“I can’t wait to just go to a station and work," she says. "Just being able to love what I do every day, it’s going to be something different every day.”

Credit Courtney Collins / KERA News
Alexis Dunn gets instructions before search and rescue.


Standing Out In The Crowd

She will definitely be in the minority wherever she lands. She’s the only woman in her fire academy class. Since the Tarrant County College program started in 1989, only 31 of the 1,019 students have been women.

Dunn says while there are rigorous physical requirements for firefighters, she has no problem keeping pace with her male peers.

“You have to be really in shape to do this. Even I’m not where I need to be, but I feel like I keep up pretty well," she says.

A Career That's In Demand

Firefighting is an attractive career. The Department of Labor reportsthat in 2014, the median weekly salary for U.S. firefighters was $1,100.

Fire Academy Coordinator Bill Pearson says that’s just one of the perks.

“I think the schedule, the camaraderie, the respect that you get from the community, I think all of that lends to it being a very popular job," he says.

Pearson says there’s nothing about this profession that should only attract one gender, as long as a student is willing to work, willing to learn and willing to get along.

“We encourage teamwork. Everyone has strengths, everyone has weaknesses, and so if you just work together as a team, it doesn’t matter if male or female, the job gets done," he says.

In The Thick Of Things

And rescuing people from a burning building is a serious job. While Alexis Dunn may be the only woman on this team, there’s no hazing. In fact, it’s almost the opposite.

“At first they would like open the door and stuff for me. I’m like guys, guys, it’s ok. Like, close the door on me or something! No I’m just kidding. But they’re really respectful, and that’s what I like the most about them," she says.

They have her respect too. Even more importantly, they all have each other’s backs. 

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.