Trail blazer: Allen becomes first female SFD firefighter in 22 years

Bethany Allen was recently hired by the Starkville Fire Department and is the first female firefighter hired by the department in 22 years (Photo by Logan Kirkland, SDN)
By: 
LOGAN KIRKLAND
Staff Writer

As a child, Bethany Allen took an interest in firefighters and fire service after seeing the community heroes carrying someone in their arms from a burning building.

“Any kid wants to be a hero, right?” Allen said. “I was like, ‘I want to be that person.’”

For Allen, she always wanted to be in the business of serving people. Her dream jobs included wanting to be a firefighter, detective and a therapist.

Once she saw the opening at the Starkville Fire Department, she knew she could make those childhood dreams into a reality.

“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a while but there was no real opportunities,” Allen said.

TRAINING

Speaking with other firefighters, Allen said they encouraged her to train to be up to speed.

Allen approached Starkville Fire Chief Charles Yarbrough expressing her interest and he set up a course for her and other women to go out and try the course, setting her up for success.

The course involves running with a filled water hose, carrying dumbbells, running with a dummy, pulling a rope from the fire tower and a few other obstacles.

“The physical strength that you have to have to do it, most women can’t just go out there and do it,” Allen said. “I couldn’t.”

Allen took her failed attempt during her training and promised she wouldn’t quit. She met up with other firefighters and asked them to train her.

“Show me what I need to do to be able to pass this test,” Allen said.

She did just that.

Prior to attempting the course, Allen served as a personal trainer, ran races and lifted weights. She said this course wasn’t like anything she had done before.

Allen looked at strategies while training to increase her mile time and even when the firefighters she knew weren’t on shift, she would go out and train. Her training period took about two months.

During her test she remembers crawling through a tube, overcome with anxiety and nerves, she wasn’t sure if she could complete the course, until she thought of her dreams.

“I just felt overwhelmed,” Allen thought to herself. “It’s just like, how bad do you want it?”

FEAR IN MALE-DOMINATED FIELD

SFD has not had a female firefighter in 22 years. Although a major accomplishment, Allen had fears and anxiety of being a part of a profession dominated by men.

“Honestly, in previous places I’ve worked, there’s been a lot of sexual harassment,” Allen said. “It almost felt inevitable being around so many men and that they were only going to see me as less than them.”

She said in previous work places she was a victim of inappropriate name calling, touching and people abusing their high rank. These worries carried over into conversations with her husband.

At one point Allen was afraid her husband would make her choose him or the job, but he didn’t want her to have to make that choice.

“I think he saw how much I wanted it and we were just going to have to work through it,” Allen said. “It would be a lot easier if I was a man.”`

For accommodations, Allen is still treated like the other firefighters. For the time being, Allen’s bed is pushed a little further away from the other beds to give her some space. Allen uses officer’s bathrooms, while she is there. No other firefighter is allowed in the room.

One of the best feelings Allen said was being proven wrong about her fears.

“They’ve taken so many steps to be appropriate and be professional and treat me as equal and make me feel safe,” Allen said. “It’s the safest place I’ve ever felt.”

Being the only woman in the department, Allen said she constantly has eyes watching her, whether she likes it or not.

“It’s my fear every single time I try something new,” Allen said. “Will I be able to do this and if I can’t, are they going to think that I’m not capable to do my job?”

Allen went in depth about some of the frustrations she has faced while training. Some of these include her height, and one particular instance where her hands were too small to wrap around the hose. Through these limitations, Allen said both her and the department strategize to find ways to make her limitations non-existent.

“I just want to do the best and I want to prove to all of these guys,” Allen said. “I want to show them that we are just as strong.”

Allen gave a perspective saying it is harder for women in a field like fire service and law enforcement because of the physical limitations. She said wants everyone to know there is no doubt a woman can do everything a man can do.

“You just really have to want it,” Allen said. “If you just kind of want it, you’re not going to make it.”

Although challenging, Allen expressed she never wants to receive special treatment or leniency because she needs to be prepared to both save lives and protect herself.

“(Yarbrough) said you know a fire is not going to treat you any different because you’re a woman, so neither are we,” Allen said. “I wouldn’t want them to modify it for me because if I get in a fire and I’m not as equipped as these guys, I’m going to die.”

CHIEF’S REMARKS

Yarbrough said he saw something special in Allen. He said she had guts, intelligence and grit — all qualities necessary to be a successful firefighter.

“She didn’t give up,” Yarbrough said. “She worked for what she wanted.”

One thing Yarbrough harped on was her work ethic and competitive nature. He said the best part is now with her in the building, it will keep others on top of their game and not slack because they don’t want to be outdone by a woman.

“First off, all I like her attitude, because she doesn’t back down,” Yarbrough said. “I think it’s going to be contagious.”

Yarbrough said she can be a useful asset to the department in many ways, but one way in particular would be to help console a family or a small child in ways other firefighters may not be able to do.

Also, with Allen visiting schools, Yarbrough hopes it will inspire other young women to consider joining the fire department. He said this will help combat the diversity issue the department faces, which is still looking at bringing more women onto the force.

“She opened the door, that you can be a firefighter,” Yarbrough said. “The fire serviceis all about brotherhood and now, sisterhood.”

INSPIRATION

Allen said she wants to break gender normalities, by proving to her coworkers and Starkville that women can do anything a man can do. She said people should remove any gender bias, which restrain people from accomplishing their dreams.

“I would hope if somebody was to see my story I would hope they would say ‘there’s nothing we can’t do,” Allen said.

On Allen’s first day putting on the gear, she said the moment felt surreal. She said even with her accomplishment she is afraid to let those cheering her on down.

Allen said she wants to serve as an inspiration for young women because culturally women and little girls are pushed to pursue other professions because of their gender.

She doesn’t want someone to sideline their aspirations just because it is difficult, or if they are being persuaded to go another route.

“That’s what I would say to a little girl, I’d say just do whatever the hell you want to do,” Allen said.

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