Women in Uniform
Casey Burch, 24, moved to Hot Springs in 2012 after attending Henderson State University for a degree in psychology. She likes to help people and knew she wanted to do something that would make a difference. But, she quickly discovered psychology “wasn't her thing.”
Two years ago, a position at the Hot Springs Fire Department became available and she jumped at it.
“I was always interested and when the position came open I didn't expect to get it but I thought, `Hey, I'll try and see what happens,' and it worked out,” she said, adding that the job was “one of those dream jobs that not many people follow through with.”
After she found out she got the job, Burch went through a 40-hour orientation at the main fire station in downtown Hot Springs where she was familiarized with the equipment and basic terminology. She then went to Camden for eight weeks of training.
“It's basically just everything to do with firefighting. You learn a little bit about cars because when you go to car wrecks that's important, but mostly it's firefighting, ventila- tion and stuff like that. You spend eight weeks down there and then you come back and it's just continuous training here,” Burch said.
“I feel like I'm super lucky; the guys that I work with like to train also so sometimes it's all day. We'll shut all the lights off in the building and one of them will hide and we'll have to crawl in and find him in the dark, drag him out, stuff like that, so we learn all the time,” she said.
Burch works 24-hour shifts, from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m., 24 hours on, 48 hours off, and so forth. She said a normal day on the job for
her begins with a run at 5:45 a.m. before she arrives at the station at 6:45 a.m. At 7 a.m. she eats breakfast with the guys on her shift and they get into uniform.
“After breakfast we do a cleanup, so, as the hoseman — I'm the youngest one on the pole at my station — I usually get bathrooms and trash, so our mornings are cleanup, scrub the toilets every day, stuff like that. We don't have a janitor that comes in here and does it for us; we take care of this station like it's our house.”
As a female firefighter, and the only female currently employed with HSFD, Burch said the reactions she receives from other people are one of her favorite aspects of the job.
“I went to the academy with one other female out of 35 of us. We're very much a minority but I think that it is kind of growing and that's also something I would like to set an example for, you know. Honestly, being a female firefighter shouldn't be any different. I'm a fireman; the guys help me — they do help me when I need it and make sure that if it's something that I can do, they're going to let me struggle it out. They let me learn and teach myself. If it's life threatening they're obviously going to step in and say `Hey, I'll help you.'
“When I first came on it was really mentally hard for me because little things — picking up an ax, it was, `Hey, don't hurt yourself.' It kind of took just having a few structure fires and I was hot and I was tired and I was not going to stop, and now, on what normally would be a two person job, they'll say, `Hey, watch this, she'll do it.' I've had to prove myself but I don't think they look at me any different now that I've been here long enough.”
Burch said she wasn't treated differently by her co- workers for being a female, but that the guys at the station were probably a bit skeptical when she first started, which she said she completely understands and expected.
“Honestly, if we were to get another female, I would be skeptical also. It's challenging and anyone, guys included, they kind of have to prove themselves. Everybody does,” she said.
On an engine company, Burch said there is a lieutenant, a driver, an engineer and a hoseman, or firefighter. Though she's at the “bottom of the chain” right now, having only been there two years, Burch said she absolutely hopes to make a lifelong career out of her job.
“I think making a difference is more important than having the rank, to me. If the rank comes with it, that's cool, but my generation unfortunately is very entitled to things. I have a lot of friends my age and I'm just like, `Come on, you have a job, you're fine.' As firefighters, we're not just citizens; people look to us and when we help them, it's the worst day of their life. Oh, yeah, we have to clean the toilets. OK, so what? We're here for 24 hours and we're getting paid. Making a difference is more important than wearing the rank but I would like to be an officer one day, or lieutenant or captain, just wherever I fit in,” Burch said.
She added that while she loves her job, the work schedule sometimes causes her to miss holidays, birthdays and other events at home.
“It's kind of a Catch 22 — there's a positive side and a negative side,” she said. “We're here for 24 hours, we're home for 48. Those 48 are wonderful but the 24, we miss a lot. My girlfriend and I just bought a home in December so we have big projects that we want to work on and between her work schedule and mine, it doesn't always play in our favor, but, when it does, it's awesome to have two days off,” she said.
To be good at your job as a firefighter, Burch said there is one thing you must have: passion. To do the job well, even if it means training on your days off or training while at work, she said if you're passionate about what you do, you'll make it work.
“It's not easy leaving your family and missing holidays, birthdays. If you're passionate, you'll make it work,” she said.
Having a strong support system at home is also extremely important.
“It's just as hard, if not harder, for them at home than it is for us here. We're with our second family here. I'm with these guys for 24 hours. We have to be in the same room at all times just so we don't miss a call, so sometimes we end up spending more time with our fire family than with our family at home, and it can be difficult, but, if you want it, dedication, you'll make it work,” she said.
In addition to her regular job duties as a firefighter, Burch is involved with water rescue and just recently finished an EMT class. This month, she will start paramedic school and keep working on her bachelor's degree.
When asked what the scariest moment she's had on the job was thus far, she recalled one of her very first structure fire calls.
“We had the biggest part of the fire knocked down and they had set up the aerial truck, the big ladder, and they were spraying water in through the roof. I was given an order, myself and another hoseman, to go around the back and start putting out some small fires, so we did. Whether it was lack of communication or whatever it was, we were inside the building, maybe 10-15 feet, and I turned around to hit the fire that was above me and the aerial truck went for the same fire and ended up blowing me and the other guy out the back door and off about a six-foot deck.
“We both were OK; we lost it for a minute and kind of came to and said `Hey, what happened?' That's a lot of gallons coming at you really fast, and I was new, so not only was it scary but I didn't know if I messed up, if I was in trouble. I think I did what I was told to do,” she said.
Burch said her advice to anyone interested in becoming a firefighter is just to learn all you can and figure out what the requirements are for the department you want to be on and try to get as many of them as possible.
“Anything that you can get that's going to make you more desirable to a department, get that,” she said. “Stay in shape; you never know when the phone calls coming. Be ready when you apply to be hired, don't apply and then try to build yourself up to being ready. And make sure that your family is on board, because that can cause some issues.”
“It's not easy leaving your family and missing holidays, birthdays. If you're passionate, you'll make it work.” - Casey Burch