Holding Her Own Valley Fire’s First Woman Firefighter Makes It On Merit In Work Environment Dominated By Males
Susan Pine never meant to cause a stir.
But, of course, she did. It’s hard to avoid when you become a community’s first female firefighter.
Reporters want to film you climbing a ladder. Your supervisors warn everyone to nix the off-color jokes and avoid sensitive subjects. Your co-workers’ wives demand to know what you’ll be wearing on those nights you’ll spend with their husbands in the firehouse.
“People were tip-toeing around on eggshells,” remembers Pine, who was hired as Valley Fire District’s first woman firefighter in 1987.
Eleven years later, the brouhaha has died down, but one thing remains the same. The 42-year-old Montana native is still the lone sister in a world of men and muscle at Valley Fire.
The status doesn’t bother Pine, who spends her days driving and maintaining Station 7’s fire truck, helping people with medical emergencies and putting out fires. It’s Pine’s duty to wash the big red pumper truck each morning while the rest of the firefighters stay inside to do housework.
No one grumbles about it — anymore.
In fact, Pine’s attitude and aptitude have won the respect of some of her former skeptics. Many of her hard-core critics have retired.
Co-workers now describe her as smart, meticulous and hard-working.
“I don’t think she’s here to prove something,” said firefighter Jeff Bordwell, who was skeptical himself until he watched her shovel a mountain of wet, smouldering remains out of a burned-out trailer.
“She’ll go in and do what it takes,” he said.
It’s a career Pine genuinely loves - one filled with variety, challenges and excitement. And she plans to stay, even if she retires as Valley Fire’s first and only woman firefighter.
It could very well happen.
Unlike Spokane’s city fire department, Valley Fire doesn’t have an affirmative action program. And Valley Fire’s physical testing program is extremely tough.
“That’s what wipes a lot of women out,” said Pine, who was hired before the new, more difficult test was implemented.
Valley Fire’s physical agility test is probably the main reason it has just one woman firefighter, compared to the Spokane Fire Department’s 16, said Ron Bassen, the city’s deputy fire chief.
Although several women have applied for a job with Valley Fire, and have passed both the written and physical agility tests, only Pines has made it to the top of the hiring list. Back in 1987, she beat out hundreds of other applicants, including professional firemen seeking transfers from other departments.
“We have a pure merit system,” said Dave Lobdell, an assistant fire chief with Valley Fire. “The highest score gets hired.”
The testing process has made it harder for women to get hired, but it has also made it easier for the men at Valley Fire to accept Pine as an equal.
“She met her competition and she beat them fair and square,” said Capt. Stan Cooke, Pine’s supervisor at Station 7, located at 12th and Evergreen. “She earned it and everybody knows it.”
Pine began her firefighting career at age 31. She had grown up on a Montana farm and married early. But the marriage was short, and she found herself floating from job to job, doing everything from secretarial work to meat packing.
In her mid-20s, she earned a degree in hotel management, but still wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. Everything changed when she moved to Spokane, and a relative suggested firefighting.
Her dad’s cousin worked at Valley Fire, and the more he described his job, the more interested she became. She took the written and physical exams, and was shocked when her scores placed her at the top of the list of applicants. She was hired soon after, amid much concern and speculation.
“A lot of the older firefighters did not agree with women in the fire service,” Pine said, simply.
One fire captain would call in sick whenever he was scheduled to work with her. Others felt uncomfortable around her, and wondered if she could do the job.
“If she had tried to be one of the boys, it wouldn’t have worked,” Cooke said, “And if she had tried to be special, it wouldn’t have worked (either).”
Instead, he said, she came across as just another person who loved the job.
Pine did have to prove herself.
Because she lacks the upper body strength many of her co-workers have, she’s learned to compensate, using the power of her lower body when needed, or finding alternative ways to get the same job done.
Despite what you see in the movies, firefighters rarely need to use brute strength to get their job done, Pine said.
Many firefighters in this area will end their career without ever needing to rescue someone out of a burning building. And if they do face a rescue, they never attempt it alone.
While Pine isn’t as strong as some of the men, Cooke said her strengths balance out her weaknesses.
Like other firefighters, she spends most of her time responding to medical problems, car accidents, and calls for help from the elderly. She inspects businesses and fire hydrants and takes training classes.
Only about five percent of the calls she responds to involve fires.
Domestic violence victims, pregnant women and others who have gone through traumatic situations often prefer getting help from Pines rather than a male firefighter, Cooke said.
And while some of her fellow firefighters still disapprove of her, Pine doesn’t dwell on the fact.
She never wanted to be a symbol or a trailblazer, she said. She just wanted to fight fires.
“You put a little fire out in someone’s yard, and they bring in a plate of cookies,” she said. ’
Or you deliver their baby, she said, and they send you snapshots.
“You get a tremendous sense of satisfaction,” said Pine, who regularly wears a large belt buckle that says “BILL.”
The buckle was a joke - and a gesture of acceptance - from her male colleagues, who picked it up after she told them not to call her Sue.
“You can call me Bill. You can call me George … anything but Sue,” she had quipped, in Johnny Cash style.
So they did.
“We really do think of ourselves as a big family,” Pine said. “I work with 125 brothers.”
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