When many people think of what it means to be a firefighter, words like strength, determination and masculinity often come to mind.
The idea that firefighting exists solely as a career for men is one that is not surprising to those within the field. Lt. Sierjie Lash has worked for the Akron Fire Department since 2003 and says that even in recent years, students and community members have told her that they’ve never met a female firefighter. In her role as AFD’s public information officer, Lash tries to bring visibility to the women who work throughout Akron’s 13 stations.
“It will be a great day when you don’t hear that [women aren’t seen as firefighters],” says Lash. “Not because we want people to be quiet about it, but because it shouldn’t be true.”
Lash first became interested in firefighting after working as an emergency medical technician for a private ambulance company that served AFD. She was interested in becoming a paramedic when she learned that working for the fire department, which requires full-time firefighters to be certified paramedics, was one of the highest-paid paramedic jobs in the area.
Lash joined Akron’s Station 9, where she worked for eight years. She was assigned to the ladder truck, though lieutenants often gave a rotation to crew members as long as staffing allowed. Lash says that having a rotation between working on the ladder truck, fire engine and medical unit ensures that everyone learns to do the job well.
In 2015, Lash and Danielle Michel became the first women promoted at AFD when they became lieutenants. At the time, Lash and many of her female colleagues were inspired by leaders like Brenda Chapman, the first woman and Black woman to be hired by AFD in 1985.
Lash says it’s important to highlight what women bring to firefighting. “We can do anything the guys can do,” she explains. “We get the same training. We work the same 24-hour shifts. We have to do the same thing. There’s not a different set of rules.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 4% of career firefighters in the U.S. are women. When Lash was hired, she was one of six women in Akron’s department. Today, AFD has 18 female firefighters out of more than 350 employees — its highest number to date — and hopes to hire more women moving forward.
While volunteer firefighters make up the largest group of firefighters in the country, AFD consists of career crew only.
Like Lash, Janai Tony began her journey in firefighting as a local EMT. Over the past 10 years, she has completed her paramedic certification and written and physical testing to join AFD full-time.
On a typical 24-hour shift, Tony will arrive at her station around 6:45 am. As the youngest person at her location, she is primarily responsible for starting the day by getting the newspaper and putting up the flag. Depending on whether she is working the med unit or the engine, she and her colleagues will take inventory of supplies and set up gear. They’ll also do radio checks and clean each unit.
“The goal of the day should be getting everyone on the same page and ready to work,” says Tony.
Tony’s station will average about 12 incoming calls per day. Once a call comes in overhead, the clock will start and the crew sets in motion putting on gear and assessing the emergency report. Upon arriving at a site, the team will evaluate the level of emergency and handle it according to protocol.
Tony says that in dealing with people in critical situations, it’s important to be firm yet understanding. “A lot of times, they think they are in the worst possible situation, so we also have to look at it from their standpoint,” she says.
In both handling emergency situations and finding success in firefighting, Tony believes that women should not be afraid to give their all.
“Do not underestimate yourself in the strength that you have,” she says. “The more that women are out on calls, the more people realize that we are firefighters as well. Don’t be afraid of the hard work.”
Aireka Wright is embracing this challenge as she trains to become a full-time firefighter. After earning a college degree and working for Akron’s recreation department, Wright saw a listing to take the AFD test and was immediately interested.
After her family experienced a house fire in Akron a few years ago, Wright saw the listing as an opportunity to be part of a workforce that saves lives. She has also been an athlete throughout her life, and the commitment to lifelong physical training was a transferrable quality she could bring to AFD.
“I definitely pushed myself when it came to getting ready for this job,” says Wright. “Coming in, you might not naturally be able to lift or throw a ladder, so you have to find the techniques that enable you to do that skill.”
Wright trains almost daily with her male colleagues, who she says are like brothers helping her to push further. “They’ve always been helpful in making me better and teaching me new skills. Hopefully, I can teach others in the future,” she says.
Wright is an EMT and studying to become a paramedic. She says that her work and study schedule is time-consuming, though worth every minute. When she’s not at the station or hitting the books, Wright is coaching a local club volleyball team where she hopes to inspire more young women to pursue their interests.
“I try to talk to my kids about joining the department even though it might seem like such a male-dominated field,” she says. “I think that if more young girls are introduced to [firefighting] and shown that women are doing it, they would be more inclined to pursue it as a career. I’ve always told them that if they think they want to do something, go volunteer to check it out that way.”
With the number of women firefighters in Akron gradually increasing, the need to maintain and feature a diverse workforce remains necessary.
Lash hopes that as COVID-19 begins to subside, AFD will be able to reintegrate back into classrooms and the community to continue its education and outreach programs. Along the way, it will be important to expand gender and cultural inclusivity.
“The career of firefighting, I think, is an exploration of diversity,” says Lash. “It hasn’t quite arrived yet, but it is opening up. Especially as Akron has become more of a welcoming community to our immigrant and refugee populations, our safety forces have to see the value of having a diverse workforce so that all of our community feels comfortable calling on the resources they need.”
Abbey Bashor is a freelance writer who enjoys community news, pop culture and a cup of tea rather than coffee.
Photos: Abbey Bashor
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