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Your Life: Female fire captains hold their own

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
Dec. 14, 2010 at 6:14 a.m.
Updated Dec. 16, 2010 at 6:16 a.m.

Capt. Celeste Hunter's helmet lies on the floor next to the ladder truck, ready for any emergency, at Victoria Fire Department Station  4.

FEMALE FIREFIGHTER FACTS:The first female firefighter was Molly Williams, who became a member of Oceanus Engine Company in 1815.

Through World War II, women entered the volunteer fire service to take the place of men who had been called into the military.

Female-only fire companies developed in King County, Calif., and Woodbine, Texas, in the 1960s.

By the 1970s, it became more common for women to join volunteer fire departments, and by the mid-1970s, women were becoming career firefighters nationwide.

Today, about 11,000 women, or 3.7 percent of salaried firefighters nationwide are female.

There are about 350,000 salaried male firefighters.

Victoria Fire Department Capt. Celeste Hunter, had no intention of becoming a firefighter when she started working as an emergency medical technician in 1987. But when the city of Victoria Fire and EMS Departments merged in the mid '90s and employees were encouraged to cross-train as paramedics and fire responders, Hunter thought she'd give it a try.

"It was strongly encouraged, but I had no intention of doing it," Hunter, 48, said, reflecting on her decision 14 years ago to receive fire training with the city. "Why would I want to run into a burning building when everyone else, including the rats, are running out?"

During fire responder training, however, Hunter said something "clicked" for her, and she knew she'd found a new passion.

"It was exciting, an adrenaline rush," Hunter said. "It was like woman against the fire, and I really liked it."

In 1996, Hunter became a certified firefighter with the city of Victoria. And today, she can't imagine doing anything else.

"It's enriching and humbling, and it reminds you how blessed you are," she said. "The relationship you develop with the guys, the people you work with, it's like a family."

And if you ask Hunter's co-worker Donna Odem, who currently serves as an administrative fire captain with the city of Victoria Fire Department, she'd agree fighting fires is a love few individuals will ever know.

"Once I got into the field, I loved it," Odem, the city of Victoria Fire Department's first-ever female Fire Captain, said. "I stuck it out and it's awesome. I wouldn't change any of it for the world."

What's more impressive about Hunter and Odem's climb to the rank of fire captain, is the sparse female-populated career path they managed to rise within.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, slightly more than 11,000 women, or 3.7 percent of salaried firefighters nationwide are female. These numbers place female firefighters in the lowest 11 percent among all occupations with women employees.

By contrast, Census data reports there are about 350,000 salaried male firefighters nationwide.

Hunter admits gender has never played a role in her effectiveness as a fire responder - man or woman, they all fight fires with the same training.

"I truly don't think the men think of me as a girl. They put me in the same clothes, and I look just like them," Hunter said.

And even though Hunter acknowledges her own physical shortcomings in comparison to her male counterparts, she admits her femaleness has never prevented her from sharing an equal workload.

"In the beginning, a few of the guys tried to help me carry the heavy stuff, and I'd tell them, 'No, I can lift that.' But I think that had more to do with me being new on the job than being a woman," Hunter said.

Whether she's at the fire station, or in the field, each responder is regarded the same.

"There's just commonness about us. The commonness is fighting fires, saving lives and the commitment to our community," Hunter said.

Like Hunter, Odem was a paramedic when the EMS and Fire Departments merged, and she too, decided to cross-train as a firefighter. For 11 years, Odem worked on the ladder truck and assisted with major fire emergencies before transitioning to an administrative fire captain position at the Department. But she's worked a total of 24 ½ years with the city.

"I've seen a lot of changes through the years," she said laughing.

When asked what advice they'd give to young women considering firefighting as a career, both Odem and Hunter said "Go for it."

"Absolutely, we need more women," Odem said. "They've got to have inner soul toughness. It's a hard physical job."

Hunter echoed those sentiments saying, "I would say do it! Do it while you're young. I started late in life, and it was almost too late for me. I think everybody should do it for a couple of years, but it's definitely not for everyone."

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