Dickinson student is sole female and lone North Dakotan at national firefighting competition
A 16-year-old daughter of a local administrative fire chief is slated to break two glass ceilings at the SkillsUSA Championships in June when she puts her training and passion on display.
DICKINSON — In less than 60 days, a young Dickinson girl will garner two unique titles when she competes at a national firefighting competition — the only female at the competition and the only North Dakotan.
During the state-level SkillsUSA convention on Tuesday, April 5, in Wahpeton, Rachel Thompson, 16, found out that she qualified for SkillsUSA Championships, where she will compete against 49 other high school students. When asked how it feels to be representing her home state, Thompson noted her shock.
“It’s difficult. You want to be competing against other people so that you don’t feel like you’re just getting it handed to you,” Thompson said. “However, it is cool to be the first of the first (in) helping develop the program so that everybody else can hopefully follow in your footsteps.”
Currently, Thompson is enrolled in Firefighter 1 Academy, which is a program in partnership with southwestern North Dakota high schools. From June 20 through June 24, she is aiming to put a mark by her name during the national competitions in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I'm hoping to learn from the other kids there — both from the college kids, from the different instructors, from the different students I'm competing against,” Thompson said. “In the fire service, you're always learning. There's always a different way to do it. Just because we do it one way here doesn't mean that it's maybe the best way to do it. I personally am not great at knots. People have stupid sayings that work for knots. I'm hoping that maybe I can learn from different people down there. And maybe they can learn something from me. We need to work off of each other. We're a community; we have to. That's how it works.”
When Firefighter 1 Academy was first introduced back in December of 2020, Lt. Dustin Hofer and firefighter Jared Rhode were leading the class every Tuesday night for three hours, teaching students about basic fire service knots to types of extinguishers. Mason Geiger, who is a firefighter at the Dickinson Fire Department, was brought on board to serve as another lead instructor.
“We're just trying to set these kids up for success and through this program, as Rachel can attest to, is that they could pretty much walk out of this program and walk into a volunteer house or a career fire department,” Geiger said. “... This program would not be where it’s at if it wasn't for Instructor Rhode or Instructor Hofer (and) the drive those two have for this program. We all see it. We all want kids to succeed. And I think that's the biggest thing — we believe.”
One of Thompson’s biggest inspirations is her father, Administrative Chief Jeff Thompson of the Dickinson Fire Department. For her, the call to serve was inherited.
“I grew up in the fire field per say; my dad has been on Dickinson Rural longer than I've been alive. So you grow up with that fire family and that instinct and you just fall into it,” she said.
Though she’s only a junior at Dickinson High School, Thompson has already a plan in place for after graduation to attend Dickinson State University and work on getting her range management, ranch management and fire science degree. From there, she aspires to enter into the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service to pursue a range management position, with a background in fire.
“Fire has always been fascinating to me, just the whole thing (and) how the fields work. I'm a little bit more into the wildland part. I do think that's definitely because of my dad. And he's done more of that. So I've just fallen into it,” she said. “But there's so much that can happen and so much research that goes into it. We still don't know exactly what happens in (a) fire. So figuring that out and the different chemical reactions and everything that need to happen for things to go wrong or for us to get it out in an appropriate amount of time. It's just always been super interesting to me.”
Thompson also credited her qualification into the SkillsUSA Championships competitions to the Dickinson Fire Department, Roughrider Career and Technical Center SkillsUSA Chapter, her advisors and Firefighter 1 Academy instructors.
“Instructor Geiger has been a huge help. He’s been the one that’s mainly been coaching me and obviously the other instructors that (have) helped throughout our class,” she said, adding that Hofer and Rhode have also guided her.
From ropes, ladder handling, hose movement to dummy drags, Thompson will have to put her physicality to the test along with completing an oral panel interview and assessment test. With that physical agility test, she’ll also have to complete a stair climb of approximately five minutes wearing a 25- to 50-pound vest, which can be “pretty exerting,” Geiger noted.
For the next couple of weeks, Geiger will work with Thompson and hone in on her skills.
“So basically, she’ll be putting on gear, raising ladders, doing hose drags, dummy drags, forcible entry. Depending on what they choose that day for those skills, we don’t really know. We just have to be trained,” he said.
Geiger will accompany Thompson down to the national competition, coaching her along as she represents not only the City of Dickinson, but all of North Dakota.
“... It’s good for the department. It’s good for the community,” Geiger said, adding, “I’m very proud of her. Her work ethic is very strong and courageous.”