Granite City, Ill., firefighter Lindsay Hendrix, 36, is one of two female full-time firefighters in the city fire department. A six-year fire service veteran, she is a single mother to a 13-year-old daughter.
(TNS) — Gender is irrelevant, say female firefighters who encourage others to pursue the career.
Granite City Firefighter Lindsay Hendrix, 36, is one of two female full-time firefighters in the Granite City Fire Department. Her colleague Megan Black, a four-year fire service veteran, just returned full-time from maternity leave.
Hendrix received a degree in fire science through Southwestern Illinois College. Black studied fire science at Lewis and Clark Community College.
Hendrix said she doesn’t think about the rarity of her position. The testing process is the same for anyone, she said, noting there are “quite a few women” on the emergency medical services (EMS) side.
“I think that it takes a certain type of person — male or female — to handle this job,” said Hendrix. “It doesn’t come easy. It takes years of medical and firefighter training to respond to the kinds of emergencies that we see in Granite City — and most cities.
”It’s definitely mentally and physically taxing at times,” she said. “It took me years of working poorly paid EMS jobs and volunteer-fire department work to earn this job as a firefighter for Granite City Fire Department.”
A six-year fire service veteran, Hendrix is a single mother to a 13-year-old daughter. She grew up in Mitchell where, as a teen, she was a lifeguard at the municipal swimming pool. As a result, she later became a paramedic and volunteer firefighter with the Mitchell Fire Department in its EMS.
She said she was inspired to become a firefighter, at age 20, by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She said she had just finished summer life-guarding and was preparing to attend Southern Illinois University Edwardsville for a math class while working at a Granite City hospital emergency room.
“After 9/11, it definitely inspired me to get in fire service on the fire side and led to doing it full time,” Hendrix said. “I started doing volunteer fire service a couple months after 9/11. I decided to try that out. I think that probably was a big part of the reason why I decided to do it then.”
Of the 2,977 victims killed in the 2001 attacks, 412 were responding emergency workers. The overwhelming loss of first responders on that day — and later due to illnesses caused from carcinogens at the scene — led to important realizations about first responders’ overall well-being in the line of duty, according to Springfield, Ill., Fire Department Division Chief Heather Moore, 48.
“On 9/11, I took my state EMT (emergency medical technician) intermediate test, trying to process what was going on,” Moore recalled. “We will never forget the lessons of that day and the first responders lost.
“I woke up, turned the TV on and, literally, the first plane flew into the tower,” she said. “I didn’t believe it was happening, thinking ‘It’s not real,’ like a movie, trying to process it.
“To honor those taken from us that day, it redefined the importance of my training and education — it’s everything,” Moore said. “Just like practice when you play for a team, training prepares you for all hazards to which you respond.”
Moore said lessons from 9/11 have led to fire departments’ integration with law enforcement.
“We really grew into an all-hazard response and realized the importance of building community first-responder relationships,” she said. “ALS (advanced life support), law enforcement, dispatch, utilities, hospitals — we became more aware of our united mission.
”In order to take care of our communities, we had to unite to find our way through this tragedy,” she said. “The planning and importance of community relationships continue, as you look at the response to Hurricane Katrina and tornadoes in Springfield, having those plans in place and having a template from which to operate.”
Moore said the tragedy influenced the mutual-aid box alarm system, the creation of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force, grant-funded training on hazardous-materials and technical-rescue response, the International Association of Fire Fighters’ Firefighter Health and Safety Research program and focus cancer research — the largest killer of U.S. firefighters — and cleanliness, including using baby wipes after taking off turnout gear and showering after responding to a fire call.
It also brought a holistic approach to first responders’ health and wellness, Moore said.
“Everyone has different levels of mental, emotional and physical resilience,” she said. “As a firefighter, it is everyone’s responsibility to check in with our people, to debrief after every call, to make sure we provide ourselves with self-care of our mind and body, through exercise, diet and adequate sleep. We are also learning to ask for help when we are not OK.
“The long-term health effects of 9/11 are still surfacing,” she said.
Research has shown that the number of firefighter suicides is greater than those killed at or responding to an emergency, Moore said.
“So, yes, we’re warriors, but it’s important to have debriefings and counseling sessions to navigate through the uncertainty,” she said. “That doesn’t make us less, but more reliable, resilient, and mentally and emotionally strong.
”Cancer, heart disease, mental health — we have to own the importance of engaging in those conversations today, and move forward with this information to honor those we have lost,” Moore said.
Moore received her fire service education through Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield. She became a Springfield firefighter in 2000, working in the department’s operations, fire safety and training divisions before becoming a fire captain in 2011. She also is a special operations training program director for the Illinois Fire Service Institute and one of seven women to ever be a Springfield firefighter.
“I never looked at it as female/male,” Moore said. “It was in the spirit and intent to be the best I could, not a female or male, but in the spirit of, ‘This is what I signed up to do and accomplish.’ It’s great that I happen to be female, but the intention is, no matter what you do, love the profession that you’re in.”
Retiring Alton Fire Chief Bernie Sebold said he’d like more women to see fire service as a welcoming and rewarding career. Currently, there are no full-time female firefighters in Alton, Edwardsville, Collinsville or East St. Louis.
“I read a lot about a lot of sexual harassment, and it’s never been my experience,” Hendrix said. “I’ve never had to deal with that on the department I’m in. I’m treated like a sister — like the guys treat each other, like brothers.”
Moore provides training and education for Springfield’s 215 personnel. Granite City has 54 personnel. The Granite City Fire Department serves 30,000 people who live in 19 square miles, responding to more than 5,100 calls annually from three stations.
”There’s a lot of industry in Granite City and a lot of smaller industrial plants, so there’s quite a bit of fire here,” Hendrix said. “You have to be calm responding. Whether it’s a fire or a baby not breathing, it can make you nervous. But you really just ignore that when going into it and think about it later.”
Hendrix participates in fire suppression, advanced life support EMS, vehicle extrication, technical rescue, arson investigation, hazardous material mitigation, disaster management, risk reduction education and fire code building inspections. She was a field training officer for new paramedics for about three years.
“As a smaller department, we can rely on each other,” Hendrix said. “For me personally, and a lot of guys I’m close with on the fire department, we lean on each other.”
Two years ago Hendrix received an EMS award for saving a woman who was having a severe heart attack.
“She was able to walk out of the hospital, but I was just doing my job,” Hendrix said.
Reach Jill Moon at 618-208-6448 and Twitter @jill_moon.
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