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Paynesville Press - November 7, 2001

Paynesville will get its first female firefighter

By Linda Stelling

Cathy Christinsen After 86 years, it looks like the first female will finally join the volunteers at the Paynesville Fire Department. Cathy Christinsen (pictured at left) has been approved by the city council to join the local department on a probationary basis while she completes her training.

"I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?' If I never tried, I would always wonder if I could have done it," said Christinsen, 34, who also plans to study to become a licensed professional nurse.

"It would be one way to conquer any fears I might have and another way of showing my three sons they shouldn't be afraid to try anything," she added.

A woman on the fire department wasn't even considered years ago. In the 1950s, women were considered homemakers, very few women worked outside of the home, and there weren't equal rights like today, said Milt Koshiol, who served as a firefighter for more than 30 years, from 1951 to 1983.

In those days, hiring was done by word of mouth, he explained, and when another fireman was needed they would ask another man.

Serving on the fire department used to be a primary social activity for men, as well as a public service, said Joe Voss, who served for 24 years. Social activities for many firefighters revolved around their volunteer colleagues and the fire hall.

In the past quarter century, though, women have made progress in the working world, in their professional lives, and in physical activities like sports. And women have started joining fire departments.

"Years ago, a woman wouldn't fight to be in an all-male club," explained Harvey Rothstein, who has been the fire chief in St. Martin for seven years and a member of the department for 27 years. "Now it's more accepted that women can be a part of that."

Requirements to be a firefighter aren't difficult, said Jim Freilinger, Paynesville's fire chief. Firefighters need to live within two miles of the fire hall and must pass an agility test and a physical exam.

Paynesville is actually late in integrating its department. Out of 16 area fire departments, nine have women serving as firefighters, according to a survey conducted by the Press. Grove City's fire department had its first female member 14 years ago. Eden Valley had its 12 years ago.

Even in the immediate area, Paynesville is late. The St. Martin Fire Department, established in 1959, has had women on its crew for five years. Deb Schaefer, (pictured below) a registered nurse, started as a first responder in St. Martin, then joined the fire department.

Amy Bast served on the Lake Henry Fire Department for two years, but has since quit.

Changing role
Deb Schaefer One of the main reasons for the increasing inclusion of women as firefighters is the changing nature of fire departments. Their primary purpose is no longer to fight fires. Because of their increasing responsibilities as first responders to medical emergencies and accidents, fire fighters actually fight fires a minority of the time. Medical runs have been at least two-thirds of the calls for the Paynesville Fire Department in recent years, for instance.

Lake Henry Fire Chief Bob Pelzer said being on the fire department isn't really a man's job. With more of the calls being medical the image and responsibilities of the job are changing.

"Obviously there are some changes," said Rothstein, about the inclusion of women in fire departments. Most changes, though, are minor, like the terminology change of calling department members "firefighters" instead of "firemen."

As women integrate what used to be perceived as all-male groups, Rothstein sees only benefits and no drawbacks. "There's no reason why it should be all men," he said.

Having all men rush into a medical situation involving a female victim is not ideal. Women often have better comforting instincts, said Rothstein, and can be of great help.

That women have great value in medical situations is not a secret. Females on ambulance services are a common sight. The Paynesville Ambulance Service has had women among its members virtually since its formation.

Pelzer said that Bast was better at dealing with people. "Bast was very knowledgeable, and we miss her," he said. "Hopefully, she will return someday."

In addition to the change in focus, fire departments have had immense changes in technology. New equipment is much lighter and fire fighting now involves brains as much as brawn.

Fantasy vs. reality
Fire call graph It took a long time for women to join fire departments, Rothstein thinks, because getting anyone to volunteer for this duty is difficult. Everyone fantasizes about being a firefighter as a kid, but the reality is not many apply.

The tragedy in New York City has reinforced the danger that firefighters face, but Rothstein stressed that these dangers exist everyday – potentially with every call – and were not just limited to the World Trade Center.

Medical emergencies. Car accidents. Blazing fires. Firefighters never go to fun places, Rothstein said.

These types of situations will help women be accepted into fire departments, according to Rothstein. "You become a family," he explained of the bonding that occurs within the department after sharing these powerful experiences. "You do a lot of things that are personal and private. You get to be really close-knit."

"Maybe we were lucky," Rothstein said, "Debbie fits in really well."

"I would encourage more females to try it," added Schaefer. "A person receives a lot of gratification from helping others. It's one way to give something back to the community."

More and more women will join fire departments in the future, predicted Rothstein. "After they're on, they'll realize it's really a good thing," he said.

"It will definitely be a new experience and a challenge," said Christinsen, who will be a probationary member of the Paynesville Fire Department until she completes an 80-hour firefighter course and a 40-hour first responder course.

She is looking forward to completing her training and being able to help with fires and rescues. "I want the firemen to know I'm a team player and that they can count on me," she said.

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