KINGSTON – In male-dominated fields like fire fighting, women having enough courage to walk through the door is a rarity in itself.
On the Kingston Volunteer Fire Department, which has never seen a woman cleared for primary duty before now, it takes grit and tenacity on a whole other scale.
University of Rhode Island Graduate Rachel Gomes, of Milford, Conn., came to Kingston to earn her master’s in environmental science and management, but left breaking barriers. Recently, Gomes became the first female firefighter to be cleared for primary duty at the all-volunteer department – enabling her to drive the fire engines and platform truck – among many other crucial roles.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge but I still wanted to do it,” Gomes said. “There are female firefighters around, but not here. It is different keeping up with an environment with guys twice my size. But you definitely have to work harder and find different ways that work for you and ways to compliment others here.”
Standing 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighing in at 125 pounds has forced Gomes to find creative solutions to the tasks before her, but she never let her comparatively small stature prevent her from overcoming any of the obstacles in her path.
“I had to approach problems differently than my male fellow colleagues would generally approach them. Some people muscle through it, but smaller people like myself have to strategize,” Gomes said, even from the way she grabs a ladder.
Student volunteer firefighters go through months of training to be cleared for different levels of duty, and the training period is characterized as both physically challenging and stressful. Receiving full clearance, as Gomes has, takes hard work and extensive training, according to Kingston Fire Chief Nate Barrington.
“Rachel is extremely well-trained, adaptive and can handle stressful situations very well. She has those innate characteristics that every firefighter has,” he said. “This is a historically male dominated field, and having people like Rachel who possess those traits and are hardworking is a proud moment for us and the field.”
Learning to deal with stressful situations was part of the reason Gomes decided to apply for the all-volunteer program, which is always in need of more help. Her training provided her with something not found in the classroom or a textbook.
“I felt like I needed to gain more skills that classic education wasn’t going to give me,” Gomes said. “I wanted to challenge myself, learn how to react to stressful situations, and learn practical skills. I saw that the fire district needed student volunteers, thought it was the perfect opportunity.”
Gomes, who earned her master’s degree earlier this year, describes herself as an athletic person who loves helping the community and challenges herself physically. Before signing up for the volunteer department, however, fire fighting had never been on her radar.
Volunteer firefighters respond to almost all kinds of emergency calls, participate in drills with predetermined and controlled live fire, and learn how to work the engines, navigate through buildings during emergencies, and drive the ladder trucks. They are also trained to respond to medical emergencies and hazardous materials situations.
According to Erik Brierly, recruitment coordinator at the Kingston Fire Department, the training period consists of two levels–the applicant and probation packet. The trainees start with the pick up, heavy rescue, engine, and finally, ladder training.
“There are plenty of grown men, adults and fit guys I have seen that don’t make it through the training,” Brierly said. “Rachel has gone through the same training that we’ve all gone through. The weight of the ladders or hoses don’t change, temperatures don’t change. But she finds what works for her and makes it work very well.”
Apart from learning life skills and how to respond to high-stress situations, Kingston volunteer firefighters also benefit from a few incentives.
URI student volunteers can live at the fire station rent-free in return for maintaining “on-call” volunteer coverage, seven days a week. They are also eligible for tuition reimbursement of up to $3,000 a semester. Moreover, textbook fees and other school expenses are also reimbursed when the volunteers meet certain benchmarks. Gomes took advantage of all of these while she was in graduate school.
“Thanks to the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, these students can balance their school work as well as volunteering here,” Brierly said. “This grant helps us increase recruitment and retention. Even if they are not a URI student and if they take an online class, we’ll give them a reimbursement. What they get from the education reimbursement is what we get from their retention.”
The Union Fire District, which serves other villages in South Kingstown, including Wakefield, Matunuck, Peace Dale and West Kingston, is also frequently looking for volunteers to help serve the community. Rather than recruiting students with incentives of tuition reimbursements, the volunteer department has worked to incentives community members with tax breaks and credits.
And while there are certainly “perks” to the job, the experience in and of itself is a reward for many. According to Gomes, her time with the department was an unparalleled opportunity to challenge her, learn how to respond to stressful situations and develop practical and leadership skills.
“If you want to be here, then you’ll feel like you belong here and I have never been made to feel otherwise,” Gomes said. “I definitely encourage others, especially women, to sign up. It might seem intimidating but once you get here, you won’t feel that way.”