1st Lady: Billings, Montana Fire Department Hires Female Firefighter

Four new recruits joined the Billings Fire Department on Monday, including a third-generation firefighter and the city's first woman firefighter.

"It's pretty much the best job in the world," said Chelsea Stoller, a 21-year-old Oregon native. "There's nothing better than riding a fire truck at 3 in the morning with lights and sirens."

Fire Chief Marv Jochems said he is thrilled to have the city's first female firefighter join the department. Women have worked at fire departments in other Montana cities, but for some reason few have ever applied for the jobs here, he said.

"It just never occurred to them that this is an available career," Jochems said.

Women on the job

There are about 6,200 women in paid, full-time firefighting jobs across the country, according to Women in the Fire Service, a nonprofit research group in Madison, Wis. The first paid female firefighter was hired in North Carolina in 1973, although women had served in volunteer positions for many years before then.

A few small changes will have to be made when Stoller begins her shift duty in about six weeks, Jochems said, including providing a privacy curtain in her sleeping quarters. But Jochems said he has heard nothing but support for Stoller's hiring from among the department's nearly 100 firefighters.

"We want her to be a firefighter, not the girl firefighter," he said. "We don't think it's going to be much of an issue."

For her part, Stoller said she has worked as a volunteer firefighter at other agencies in Washington and Oregon since she was 16. With a few minor exceptions, Stoller said, she has been accepted among what firefighters traditionally call the "brotherhood."

"They have great attitudes here," Stoller said of her new co-workers. "They are training me just as any other firefighter."

Other new firefighters

Joining Stoller as the city's newest firefighters are Trevor Krieger, Bill Tatum and Joseph Sands. The four were selected from about 150 applicants who passed a grueling battery of written and physical tests to qualify for the jobs.

"In our mind, these are the top four" applicants, Jochems said. Three more new firefighters will be hired in March, Jochems said, and he expects to see more women hired in the future. The vacancies were created by retirements within the department, he said.

Krieger, 26, is a 1996 graduate of Billings Senior High whose father, Randy Krieger, has been a firefighter in Billings the last 29 years. His grandfather, Jim Meader, retired from the department in the 1980s as a battalion chief after a 30-year career.

"It's an added bonus and an honor for me that it's a family tradition," Krieger said of his family's roots at the department.

Krieger said working as a firefighter has been a lifelong goal.

"I grew up in the stations," he said.

Firefighting is Tatum's second career. For the last four years, the 34-year-old Libby native has been a teacher at the St. Labre School in Ashland. Three years ago, Tatum said, he joined the volunteer fire department in Ashland to see if he liked the job. He did, and applied for a job in Billings as soon as a position came open.

"It's something I've always wanted to do, but never had the opportunity until now," Tatum said.

Sands, from Pennsylvania, has spent the last three years working as a paramedic in West Yellowstone. An Army veteran, Sands, 32, said he was attracted to a career in firefighting because of its professional standards and the opportunity to influence the next generation of firefighters.

"We serve as such a positive role model for the kids," he said.