Gonzaga student johnnie duguay among women breaking norms of firefighting industry

14 September 2016

published by http://www.gonzagabulletin.com


USA —   A loud “Boom!” cracked through the early morning air, jostling Johnnie Duguay awake before her alarm had a chance to.

The newly certified engine boss ignored it and rolled over. In that same moment, the lightning from which the thunder bellowed blazed its mark just a few miles from where Duguay slept.

Duguay spent the 37 hours following breakfast trying to scotch that mark called the Chelan Complex, a group of four fires that spanned 88,985 acres in August and September 2015.

Although she was only one of 254 personnel to help stop the fire — which took more than three weeks to complete — the Zag stood out against her colleagues as a 20-year-old female engine boss.

She is one among 7 percent of volunteer and career firefighters in the United States who are women, according to the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) most recent “U.S. Fire Department Profile.”

‘We should not have been there.’

For Duguay, now 21, firefighting is a family business. Her dad is the owner of the contracting company Methow River Wild Fire, where she spends her summers working. When other students were saying their summer “goodbyes,” packing and preparing for classes, this senior spent 13 days before fall semester working on the Spokane Complex, two August 2016 fires that spanned 6,358 acres.

Despite having been on multiple fires, Duguay describes that day on the Chelan Complex in 2015 as the most nerve-wracking.

Not only did she feel partly responsible for the communities that the fire was rapidly approaching — she felt responsible for the two crew members working under her: her brother and cousin.

“We have a good enough relationship that we work well together and I support her,” said Duguay’s brother Willy, who is a sophomore at GU. “It was a little bit scary because she was a beginning engine boss, but I think she has the level-headedness and common sense enough to make the decision that kept us safe. There were a few scary moments.”

That moment came for Willy when a homeowner stopped the crew to ask a question.

“Meanwhile, the fire is racing down the hill toward these houses,” he said. “There’s nothing we could really do at that point. I guess we could have sprayed it with water, but it wouldn’t really have done much in that situation.”

Duguay expressed to her supervisor that she didn’t feel safe for herself or her crew in that position.

“The fire was growing beyond the span of control — they needed ’dozers and helicopters and stuff like that, and they were trying to fight it with just people,” she said. “We weren’t really being utilized because [the overhead leaders] couldn’t figure out where they wanted to plug us in to make line.”

Duguay’s crew — which typically doesn’t engage in structure fires and usually drives up to the incident — was thrown together with other contracted companies into a hand-crew. They were told to hike around the soon-to-be blazing hills to evaluate the situation.

After zigzagging up and down parts of the sagebrush-and-grass-cloaked hillside, the overhead leaders decided it would be best to retreat to the safety zone to re-evaluate their plan of attack.

“Once we had gotten back down to our engines and our safety zone, we watched the whole area where we had been start running [with flames],” Duguay recalled as a grin flashed across her face. “I was like, ‘OK, we should not have been there.’ ”

Under normal circumstances, firefighters don’t work for 37 hours straight — but Duguay said that at that point, resources were spread thin in Washington.

“The fire management team couldn’t leave the fire unattended, but they also couldn’t get replacement resources, so we pulled a really long shift,” she said.

Breaking the mold

Duguay, a senior studying environmental science and political science, has worked with her dad’s contracting company for four years. While she never doubted her ability to become a firefighter, she has witnessed coded language based on her gender.

“There’s a lot of like, ‘Oh, here, let me help you with that,’ sort of stuff,” she said. “People are trying to be polite, but I don’t really want to be treated differently.”

As the daughter of the company’s owner, Duguay’s situation is a bit of an anomaly in the world of firefighter demographics.

“There are some [women firefighters], but the vast majority are men,” she said. “Our company hires quite a few women just because we know a lot of women who are interested in it, but I think a lot of companies don’t necessarily hire that many women. There’s definitely a gender imbalance.”

Duguay’s sentiment is shared among other female firefighters such as Spokane County District 10’s Kelsey Wardsworth, 25, who is aware of the gender imbalance in the field, but has not experienced prejudice directly. Both women helped put out the 2014 Carlton Complex.

“I think, on all of my crews, I’m the only woman,” said Wardsworth, who is also an American Medical Responder (AMR). She added that she thinks that District 10 has the most women out of all the districts.

“There’s hardly any women,” she said.

District 10’s Julie Nowak, ’16 alum, hasn’t been on a fire yet, but agrees with Wardsworth — if there is prejudice in the field, she hasn’t experienced it directly.

“It’s much different than anyone would expect, but there is an awesome feeling of defying the odds when you can crawl through fire and feel nothing but a little heat,” Nowak said in an email regarding her training.

Duguay’s brother Willy said that it’s not unusual for male firefighters to modify their behavior around females in the same position.

“Sometimes when I’m with all males, there’s a lot of sexism and general disgusting behavior, but I think they kind of watch their mouths when they’re around my sister,” Willy said.

He also suggested that the demographics of the field lack diversity in a more general sense.

“My perspective as a male next to my sister is completely different,” he said. “But a lot of [firefighters are], I think, the male pretty much uneducated demographic — and usually white, conservative. It’s kind of hard to work next to them sometimes because of some of the outrageous things they say, weird observations.”

One observation Willy noted is when male firefighters feel the need to tell his sister that she’s a woman — “Oh, you are a female” — as if she doesn’t already know that.

Women have been firefighters for nearly 200 years, according to the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services. So why aren’t there more women in the field today?

“I think there aren’t as many [women] because it’s pretty intimidating and it’s not a typical role for women,” Wardsworth said. “So breaking that mold [is important].”

Breaking the mold, however, may be difficult for some women who have trouble relating to those within the field if the demographics stand.

“I just don’t think many women know about it as a potential summer job or profession,” Duguay said. “Maybe women don’t want to do it if there aren’t many other women out there [in the field].”

Still, Nowak and others appreciate the trend in the field where — for the most part — women are being treated equally.

“There are some of the guys who, literally, I don’t think can tell I’m not one of the guys,” Nowak said. “[They] require the same from me as anyone else, which I really appreciate, because if someone is dying and I happen to be the one around to save them, they would appreciate that I was trained to push myself physically and mentally to save them.”