Deltona promotes female firefighters

By NICOLE SERVICE
Staff Writer

Last update: September 21, 2005

DELTONA -- Firefighting is in Melanie Wagner-Blake's blood.
Her father, grandfather and his grandfather were firefighters, and if that's not enough proof, her first birthday was at a fire station because "dad was on shift."

With this legacy, Wagner-Blake knew she had to fight the odds. She was only 4 feet 11 inches tall. And even her father wasn't sure about her entering the profession.

"I knew this was what I wanted to do, but you still have it in the back of your mind that this isn't something a lot of females want to do," she said. "There weren't a lot of role models to look at."

More than a decade later, Wagner-Blake, 30, and her colleague Samantha Hughes, 28, are making history as Deltona's first female fire officers. Their promotion to lieutenants also puts them among the small, but elite rank of women officers in Volusia and Flagler counties.
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Did you know?
The first known female firefighter was Molly Williams, who was a member of Oceanus Engine Company No. 11 in New York City in 1818.

∑ A black woman held under slavery by a member of the company, Williams helped pull the pumper to fires during the blizzard of 1818. Her firefighting "uniform" consisted of a calico dress and checked apron.

∑ Other early female firefighters included Marina Betts, a French-Indian woman who worked on the bucket brigades in the 1820s in Pittsburgh, and San Francisco heiress Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who fought fires with Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 beginning in 1859.

ó Compiled by News Researcher
Peggy Ellis

SOURCES: Women in the Fire Service Inc.; firefightercentral.com; CollegeBoard.com

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Volusia County Fire Services has one of the highest-ranking female officers in the county -- Kathleen Weaver. She is a deputy chief and there is only one other female officer in the department of about 200.

Flagler County Emergency Management Services has two female lieutenants out of 12 female firefighters. Overall the department has 69 firefighters.

When compared to the rest of the nation, Florida numbers for women firefighters are impressive, said Terese Floren, executive director for the network organization, Women in the Fire Services Inc. With 775, Florida ranks second in the country behind California in number of female firefighters. Within the state, Orange County and Miami-Dade County employ the highest numbers of woman at 250 each.

Floren said the state's demographics with its large elderly population mean more opportunities for women firefighters. She said women are fighting fires for the same reason men do.

"They want to be of service to their communities, to be able to help people in their time of need," Floren said. "It's an active job, an outside job, and lot of people like that."

For Hughes, it was a matter of proving naysayers wrong.

"I am a very competitive person by nature," Hughes said. "I was told that I couldn't do it, that it I was too little, so of course I had to do it. Then, I found I really enjoyed it, so it all worked out. It's a man-driven field, and they assume a woman can't do it."

Like Wagner-Blake, Deltona is the first and only department Hughes has worked for. Thanks to her dad, she got the job.

"My dad was going through the newspaper one day, saw the ad, cut it out and put it on my bed," she said laughing. "I still have that ad today."

At a recent promotion ceremony, Wagner-Blake's dad, Ben Wagner, was on hand to pin the lieutenant badge.

"I don't think he wanted me to (become a firefighter) at first," Wagner said. "Now that I have, I think he is really proud."

Hughes' dad was also at the promotion ceremony to watch his daughter make Deltona history, and was "very, very proud," she said.

Both women said the hardest part of the job was getting through school, mainly the physical requirements.

"It's just going there not knowing what to expect and when you get there, the sheer amount of physical energy you exert going in and out of a burning building, carrying packs of clothes, hoisting tool and stuff," Wagner-Blake said. "It's just a whole host of things that before you enter into fire school you have no idea what you are in for."

They both said a number of women eventually drop out because of the physical demands.

Louie Mercer, director of Daytona Beach Community College Emergency Services Institute, said it's a tough program for both men and women.

"It's a grueling program," he said, "and sometimes people come with the wrong ideas about what's involved."

Hughes and Wagner-Blake said once they started their jobs at Deltona, they quickly became one of the guys.

"Once you finish school and get here, they treat you with the same respect as they do anyone else because it's the same testing, no different," Wagner-Blake said.

Hughes nodded. "I think once they realize that we can pull our own weight, they have no problems."

As for other women considering becoming a firefighter, Samantha offers these words: "There is nothing you can't do."

nicole.service@news-jrnl.com