Community feature: Firefighter helps efforts to recruit women to local department

Erica Thompson
Firefighter Elizabeth Finnegan

A few months ago, Columbus firefighter Elizabeth Finnegan responded to a call to assist someone who was experiencing trouble breathing. When she arrived, she found a woman with a history of asthma who was 37 weeks pregnant. The woman passed out, and Finnegan and her colleagues took action. But they were hindered by the woman's hysterical mother.

“You've got to go!” Finnegan yelled and sent her to the porch. They transported the unconscious woman to Riverside Methodist Hospital, where she eventually recovered. Later, the woman's mother visited the station.

“She was just like, ‘The doctor said if you guys weren't there and didn't help, she would have died [and] the baby would have died, so I just want to thank you,'” Finnegan recalled. “And she looked at me and she was like, ‘You were so mean, but I needed that.'”

Though stern when required by a life-threatening situation, Finnegan describes herself as “happy-go-lucky.”

“I've always wanted to be a firefighter since I was about 9 or 10 years old,” said Finnegan, who is currently assigned to Fire Station 16 in North Linden. “I love helping people.”

Helping people doesn't always mean putting out fires. Providing emergency medical services, the Columbus Division of Fire is a first responder for everything from overdoses to stomach aches. “Even the stubbed toes are rewarding,” Finnegan said. “Whenever we show up, it's always to make somebody's day better.”

Finnegan is joined in her mission by more than 1,500 additional firefighters in the city. However, only about 33 are fellow women. The department is trying to combat that disparity by offering the first-ever “Women's Get Fire Ready Orientation” on Saturday, July 7, at the Columbus Fire Training Academy.

Hosted by women firefighters, the free recruitment event will provide an overview of the mental and physical job requirements. Attendees will be able to try on the 80-pound gear and participate in physical training led by Finnegan.

“Showing them that we've done it allows them to say, ‘I can do this, too,'” said recruiter Julie Dassylva. “We hope that they will catch the fire bug.”

That exposure to women firefighters is crucial to potential recruits, who likely have not seen them out in public.

“People think it's too hard,” Finnegan said. “But the body does some crazy things. If you train your body enough to do it, it will do it.”

At 5 feet 2 inches tall, the petite Finnegan faced obstacles at the training academy. In one instance, her 6-foot male instructor advised the class to hold the fire hose 36 inches away from their chests.

“I'm like, ‘36 inches? I'm 62 inches. That's over half my body length. I can't do that. It doesn't work for me,'” Finnegan said. But the former track and field coach eventually found a way to modify the task.

“I push forward with my legs instead of trying to muscle it with my upper body,” she said. “The guys can just hold it under their arm. … But I need to really get down and carry it a different way.”

Finnegan agreed that a woman instructor in the training academy could benefit recruits by offering different training techniques, or even explaining basic information, like the company's maternity leave policy.

“I think we've made huge strides, at least since I came on,” said Lt. T.J. Cullison, who teaches at the training academy. “[In] my class in '97, there were no women. … And then [in] the class after [Finnegan], we had four females in it, which I think was a first in recent history.”

“I like where testing is going now,” continued Cullison, citing unrealistic physical standards in the past. “It's still not gonna be for everybody. … We have guys that fail it all the time.”

Finnegan outperformed the men and women, graduating at the top of her class last year. She has also returned to the training academy to lead physical training.

“She is probably one of the most driven people I've ever met,” Cullison said. “She's a very good firefighter, too. … I don't throw that term around lightly.”

Out in the field, Finnegan notices some people don't know exactly what to call her. “People are like ‘Oh, it's a lady fireman,'” she said. “Or they say fireman lady. … They don't know how to say it because they don't see [us] all the time.”

Among her male colleagues at the station, Finnegan feels comfortable and accepted. “If you know your job and you can handle your job, they're gonna treat you like they treat everyone else,” she said. “I'm not saying that there's not people on the department who feel like this is a man's job and that women can't handle it. You will run into those people. It's not a perfect world. It's not a perfect department.”

“I love this job so much,” she added. “I want other women to know that you can do this job. … If you put that work in, you get the reward out.”

Columbus Fire Training Academy

9 a.m. – 1:30 p.m. Saturday, July 7

3639 Parsons Ave., South Side