Women gathered from around central Minnesota Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Albany Fire Hall to discuss what it takes to be a female firefighter. Current and prospective firefighters participated in the all-day event. From ripping apart cars with the jaws of life to crawling through a collapsed house simulation, women showed they have what it takes to save lives. 

The day began with Judy Thill sharing her journey of becoming a firefighter and being a female in a male-dominated field. Thill has been in fire service for 29 years and currently is the fire chief of Inver Grove Heights. She became the second woman to be a fire chief in Minnesota in 2007. 

She shared some of her struggles of being a woman in a male-dominated field and told stories of her journey through the fire service and specific struggles as a woman, like ill-fitting gear, feeling like she is under a microscope and also invisible at times. 

“You don’t have to change yourself to fit into the fire service,” said Thill. “We want you as you are and need your skills and talents.”

In addition to the benefits a woman brings to the fire service, there is no shortage of struggles, and Thill is frank regarding them.

“I want to encourage women to be in this profession and do this but I don’t want to sugarcoat it,” Thill said. “There are very real struggles and I want to make sure they know what they are getting into.”

Even if you are not the the first female firefighter in your station, you still might have some glass ceiling to shatter.

“Maybe the woman that came before you was not the best firefighter, medic or employee in general,” Thill said.

Natascha Hennen, Freeport firefighter, helped organize this event and said that the last time they held the event, someone signed up to be a volunteer firefighter for their local department. 

“If just one person signs up, then this is all worth it,” said Hennen regarding the expo. “It’s about getting women involved and showing them they have what it takes. Everything is a team effort, there is nothing you would have to do on your own.” 

Fire departments are also kept updated on their safety training. 

“I’m here because I played with little red trucks when I was a kid, just like the guys,” Hennen said. “This is a job that we do because we love it, and we do it for our neighbors and the community.”

Alli Heyman is considering a future in fire service and came to the event to learn more about it before signing up. 

“I’m not one for wasting people’s time, so I don’t want to apply for something and then find out it’s not for me,” said Heyman. “It’s an insight to be here too, it lets you know you’re not alone as a woman firefighter.”

Heyman has always had an interest in fire service, and took the suggestion from her brother to come to the event Saturday. 

“My brother is a paramedic and my dad is a state trooper, so I’ve always wanted to do something like that and give back to the community,” said Heyman. “I thought about doing paramedics like my brother and he suggested that, because I’ve always been intrigued by the fire aspect of public safety, I should look at the fire department.”

Heyman thought the event was educational as well. 

“There are some things you forget that firefighters do,” Heyman said. “Like the Jaws of Life. I knew that they did that, but I also didn’t know how they actually did that. And all the medical stuff is very interesting for me. I think that’s another way women can be beneficial to fire teams, they provide the nurturing aspect to a tense situation.”

Heyman loved the hands-on experience, but enjoyed hearing from Thill about her journey as well. 

“It’s important to remember every female that has paved your way,” Heyman said. “I think that now with feminism and all that we have more rights as women, but we have to remember not to take that for granted. And we can also be an example for younger generations.”

If you decide that you would like to be involved in fire service, check to see if your department is hiring, and do not be afraid to jump in. There is always mentoring, training and instructors to help you along and make you a better firefighter.