June 18, 2009 in Washington Voices

Cheney firefighter blazes trail

Keri Burden calls male-dominated firehouse home
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Keri Burden, left, jokes with Cheney Fire Chief Mike Winters in the engine bay Thursday. Burden is the first female resident firefighter at the Cheney Fire Department and a student at Eastern Washington University.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Keri Burden, 20, is a first in the city of Cheney.

She is the city’s first female resident firefighter, living and working at the Cheney Fire Department while she attends Eastern Washington University.

“It’s just like working with a bunch of brothers,” Burden said.

Resident firefighters are college students who live and work at firehouses, usually for about two years, while they take classes at a university or college.

A friend of Burden who works as a volunteer firefighter suggested she submit her application at the Cheney fire station when openings became available.

Burden was in school at the time, pursuing majors in electrical engineering and criminal justice and minors in sociology, math and physics. But she was looking for something to do in her spare time.

When she submitted her job application, four people were vying for two resident positions. After completing the physical agility test, which involves climbing up and down a fire truck ladder, raising ladders, carrying a fire hose, spraying water from a nozzle and dragging a dummy, she took an oral interview.

She wasn’t hired right away – two others were chosen. But when another resident decided to leave the program, firehouse officials interviewed her again, and this time she got the job.

She’s been at the firehouse since March 17.

“She’s handled it all very well,” said Chief Mike Winters. “I don’t care who you are as long as you can do the job.”

Winters said that residents don’t think it’s so strange to have a woman in their ranks. They have grown up in an age where everyone is equal.

“It’s kind of cool to be a part of that,” said Travis Barnhart, one of the five residents at the station.

Burden seems to fit right in, too. While she walked through the firehouse with visitors last week, she exchanged lighthearted barbs with the other firefighters and held her own.

Burden’s move into the firehouse required changes to the building that only housed men previously. An office has been turned into a private dorm room for her. A lock was installed on the locker room door and a sign was posted that lets other firefighters know she’s in there.

Burden spends 24 hours on duty, with time off for EWU classes. She carries a pager in case any calls come into the fire station while she’s at school.

While on duty, the residents make sure their equipment works perfectly. They undergo training in firefighting, emergency medical assistance and wildfire reduction.

After 24 hours on duty, Burden gets 48 hours off. During her down time, she studies, plays basketball with the other residents and watches movies in the lounge at the firehouse.

All residents must take at least eight credits at a local college. They sign on for at least two years and receive a small stipend.

Now that school is out for summer, Burden has been accepted for an internship with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Fairchild Air Force Base on her days off from the station.

After she graduates, Burden hopes to work in national security. For now, she’s going out on calls, learning what she can and helping people.

“I’m really enjoying it,” she said.

“We couldn’t have picked a better person,” Winters said.


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