As headlines about emergency and medical personnel stretched to the limit appear in major national media outlets, you might wonder what Wyoming’s Fire & EMS Department is facing here during this COVID-19 health crisis. Luckily, Wyoming is not experiencing the same demanding conditions that have affected hot spots such as New York City and New Orleans, but the city’s Fire & EMS Department takes this crisis – and every fire run – seriously, and three women firefighters explain here why they love the job and how they stay safe.
“We don’t want to have firefighters get quarantined,” said firefighter Sophia Abrams. “We need to continue serving the residents of Wyoming.” This means the personnel are wearing their own personal protective equipment (PPE) that has now become a household term throughout the country.
The Wyoming Fire & EMS Department has been serving residents for nearly 130 years. The department answers about 300 calls a year, which they call “runs.” Abrams, for example, was on about 120 of the runs last year alone. Very few of the recent runs have been COVID-19 related, although some have included residents with potential symptoms of the virus.
In a small community like Wyoming, volunteers are the key to fire and rescue service. Wyoming’s fire department is an all-volunteer force. Most of the roughly 60 members are Wyoming residents who have full time jobs elsewhere. None of the firefighters routinely stay at the station, and when alerted to a call – by text or pager – they must drive to the firehouse, jump into their gear, and race to the scene. Despite all this, the average response time is about eight minutes, which falls below national guidelines, says Chief Dennis Brown.
Without fanfare, the department had a recent restructure that made history in the city. Three veteran women firefighters served together for the first time as the only all-female fire crew in Wyoming. Although it’s unlikely the women will routinely serve together, due the department’s all-volunteer status, it is very possible you will see them together, racing to a call. The crew is more a formality for training and administrative purposes than an official stand-alone unit. Firefighters Sophia Abrams, Jess Lindner and Carol Pagliaro form the team.
“We didn’t set out to be an all-woman team,” explained Abrams, and a four-year veteran of the department. “We all show up on a lot of runs, so it just happened,” she says of their occasional runs together. Each of the women joined at a separate time for their own reasons, and each has a unique story.
Abrams, 22, is a 2016 Wyoming High School graduate and works full-time as a 911 dispatcher. She joined out of high school because she enjoyed helping people. After a short time, she knew she’d found a home. “Oh boy, I like this,” she recalls thinking. But it’s not much about fighting fires, exactly. Wyoming averages less than one house fire a year. She explains: “We do a good job at fire prevention, so most of our runs aren’t fighting fires.” First aid, vehicle accidents and downed power lines are common calls. She loves when kids visit the station, and the reaction of the young girls can be fascinating when they see there are women in the fire department. “I like the looks on the little girls’ faces,” Abrams said. “We are breaking stereotypes. As I like to say, women can be firemen, too.”
Linder is in medical school and has lived in Wyoming her entire life. She joined the department in 2017 after working in Colorado mapping forest fires. “It’s a part of my life I really value,” she says of her time with Wyoming’s Fire & EMS Department. “As women, we’re firefighters, just like everyone else.”
Not every run is a high-adrenaline emergency, however, she adds.
Some of the department’s work is straight out of an Andy Griffith TV episode, she jokes, recalling the time the department was summoned to get a cat out of a tree and another incident where a homeowner’s dog was stuck under the porch. “We pried up the deck to get him out, but we weren’t sure at first if it was her dog or a big opossum.” (Spoiler alert – it was the dog.)
While Abrams and Lindner got involved at a young age, Pagliaro started serving at a different point in her life.
She joined 16 years ago, when she was 57 and her son, a Cincinnati and Wyoming firefighter, asked her to go along on a run. She was hooked and believed joining the department was “a wonderful thing to do.” Today, someone will occasionally ask her why she doesn’t settle into a safer pastime, like playing cards. But she insists that’s not who she is.
“There is a place for women at the fire department, and I serve in my own way,” says the veteran rescue truck driver. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” Has she ever felt the male firefighters treated her differently? “Absolutely not. If you can do the job, that’s all they ask.”
Fire Chief Dennis Brown is grateful for their service: “These women interact with the community often. They are very active members,” Brown said. “They are strong, positive examples to the city of who firefighters are, and what can be achieved.”
All three of these Wyoming firefighters share a common sense of pride and purpose. And despite COVID-19 and the additional risks they take, they remain determined to serve. Are they ever scared?
“Never; it’s what I signed up for,” Abrams said. “When those tones drop, it’s no different to me whether it’s a flooded basement, a structure fire, or someone sick that may or may not have coronavirus. No matter what, I’m going in.”