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Grand Forks hopes to fire up more female firefighters

Grand Forks Fire Department Battalion Chief Kelli Flermoen. Grand Forks has two female firefighters, both hired 15 years ago. Herald photo by John Stennes.

Kelli Flermoen doesn't think of herself as a number.

She's a firefighter.

But she is one of just two females of the 63 uniformed firefighters with the Grand Forks Fire Department.

That figure is very close to the national average, where women are less than 4 percent of the work force, according to a Cornell University study published in 2008.

It's a number that Grand Forks Fire Chief Pete O'Neil would like to see grow and one that may when the department hires a dozen new firefighters to accompany a new firehouse scheduled for construction in 2015.

But male or female, the candidates will need to be qualified and prepared, according to O'Neil.

"I would certainly hope so," O'Neil said. "We only have one or two openings a year. (The firehouse opening) will give us an opportunity to reach some more people. You can't just go out and hire whoever you want or whoever may apply. There's a testing procedure and a process. It's a fair process. We're going to put a lot of efforts into the recruiting side."

Breaking in

Battalion Chief Flermoen has been with the department for 15 years, as has the other female firefighter, Tana Ostlie.

Flermoen said the first couple of years is tough for any firefighter, but she thought the department did a good job of helping the two women acclimate.

"It helped at first when they hired two of us," she said. "That helped take the pressure off us. The Grand Forks Fire Department did a wonderful job when they did decide to hire women. They did some training and opened up the dialogue with everybody. They really identified the fears everyone had.

"They changed the layout of the station. They no longer had the open dorm, they had to put in a women's bathroom, they never had a women's bathroom before. They did their homework when they brought us on board. That helped. It made our transition easier."

O'Neil said the updates and changes were overdue and would have been helpful for even the male firefighters had they come earlier.

"We did it because females were on the force, but in hindsight, it's something we should have done years before," he said. "It was an offshoot of the females starting that we have private bedrooms. We also added some diversity classes. The culture has changed. We've kind of cleaned up our act. It's been a good 15 years; I give a lot of credit to our past chief Dick Aulich. He was ready to change the force up and he hired the two women. That was a big step at the time."

Physically demanding

When firefighters are in action, the physical demands can be as strenuous as any job.

Flermoen, a former college basketball player, said her background in athletics helped her make the transition.

"I basically went from the court to the job," she said. "The physical part is tough. It's a constant battle to stay in shape and to ensure you can do the job."

Anyone who joins the force would have to pass the Candidates Physical Abilities Test, or CPAT, a standardized test used throughout the country.

"That is a very stringent physical ability test that everyone has to pass," Flermoen said. "It's one test for all. It's a nationally recognized program. It's very tough for females. You have to be ready for it."

The physical demands of the job may scare off some potential female applicants, but with some extra training, Flermoen said passing the test is feasible for many women.

"Some are scared off by it, but if you put your mind to it, you can do anything," she said. "If you want the job bad enough, you're going to do what you need to do to pass the test

Nontraditional for women

Firefighting has historically been a male occupation. Even in Minneapolis, with the greatest percentage of female firefighters of any city in the country, women make up only 17 percent of the workforce.

O'Neil said being such a small minority can be an imposing prospect for women interested in a firefighting career.

"Absolutely, it's a nontraditional job for females," he said. "It's traditionally been a male job in the work force. That image persists. But you don't have to be that macho or physical .It tends to scare some people off. I would encourage women to train and prepare for the physical side of it. They are capable of passing the test, but it may take a little more preparation for physiological reasons. I think it's the image they're scared off by. It's kind of daunting to spend 24 hours with all males and for all practical purposes being locked up with all males."

Being surrounded almost exclusively by men in the workplace took some getting used to for Flermoen, a Fertile, Minn., native.

"Today, it's really not a big deal. I'd obviously like to have more (women) here," she said. "I don't feel the difference here like I did at the beginning when we were such an anomaly."

Competitive field

Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks offers a two-year Fire Technology program.

Jeff Laskowske is the program director at Northland and also a captain at the Grand Forks Fire Department's Station 2, which specializes in responses to fires that include hazardous materials.

Laskowske estimates between 10-12 graduate from Northland's fire and medic programs each year.

"I know the Grand Forks Fire Department, we have between 100-300 people (that apply) and we hire one to two a year," he said. "The biggest thing that helps students is having the fire background before they apply for these jobs.

"It's very competitive, even within the school. A lot of students find out early on if they have a passion for it or whether it's not for them."

Flermoen said there little turnover in the firefighting profession because most really enjoy the job.

She said the opening of the new station may give prospective firefighters better odds at being hired.

"There will probably be a lot more recruiting," she said. "We're looking for more applicants because we'll want a bigger pool to choose from. We're going to be looking at a bigger scope. It'll be a different process than they go through now. It will probably be an academy. It's a big chunk of people to bring on board."

A tough, but rewarding job

Firefighting isn't for the faint of heart.

Laskowske said his students find out early on that it's not the most glamorous of careers.

"I've seen quite a few students who are very gung ho and the first time they see fire they (want nothing to do with it)," he said. "It's not for everybody. It's hot and claustrophobic. You're running in when everyone else is running out."

Flermoen hopes women will eventually make up half of firehouses across the nation. But despite being a minority, she wouldn't want to work anywhere else.

"To be a firefighter takes a special person," Flermoen said. "You have to have a certain drive. You have to have a certain willingness to run into a (burning) building when everyone else is running out. It's not the easiest job in the world, but it's certainly a worthwhile job. I can't imagine doing anything else."