Havin' a Hot Time Ringin' in the New Year

Woman rings in New Year as only female firefighter

As an emergency medical technician on the ambulance crew, school teacher Kamisha Begay responds to many heart-wrenching accidents.

Two touched her personally.

She was first on the scene when a high school student was killed after he rolled a four-wheeler behind the high school and she responded to a fatal accident where people she knew were killed.

Despite the trauma being an emergency responder brings, it also comes with an adrenaline rush and a sense of satisfaction two reasons Begay has expanded her role as an emergency response person to include fighting fires.

Ringing in the New Year will be more than just greeting a new millennium for Begay. After a year of learning by watching of always being in the background Begay will join one other person who has passed his rookie year as a firefighter this year. At midnight today, the two will receive their badges and status as full-fledged firefighters for Craig Rural Fire Protection District.

As rookies, firefighters-to-be aren't allowed to use sirens when responding to a call. Rookies strive for 12 months to obey all traffic rules, but hope to get to the Craig Fire/Rescue station before the last truck leaves. Begay already has lights installed on her vehicle and has told Chief Roy Mason she plans to be the first person at the department on any call after the clock strikes midnight New Year's Eve.

Begay is the second of only two women to brave the rigors of training to be a firefighter in Moffat County. She will join a group of 30,000 to 40,000 women in the United States who are volunteer firefighters.

Begay made the decision in January to join the fire department rookie program because of the influence of three people, all firefighters. A college friend who was a member of the Pike's Peak Hotshots first piqued Begay's interest, followed by a friend who is a paramedic and firefighter in Steamboat Springs. She credits most of her decision to Craig Assistant Fire Chief Bill Johnston who, after Begay accidentally ended up in a self-contained breathing apparatus class, prodded her into joining Craig Fire/Rescue.

"He looked at me and said, 'Why aren't you on the fire department?' He asked me that several times that day," Begay said.

Begay had been an emergency medical technician (EMT) with the ambulance crew for three years. She was familiar with many of the firefighters.

"It seemed like a natural progression from what I was already doing," she said.

The rookie year is a probation year for anyone training to be a firefighter.

Rookies cannot ride the first truck to a fire or accident scene and to ride on the second truck, they must be invited by the incident commander.

Being a rookie isn't as physically demanding as it is mentally, Mason said.

"It takes a great deal of dedication," Mason said.

During the rookie year, firefighters-in-training commit to monthly classes, training drills and intensive study of a firefighter manual.

"It's very time-consuming," Begay said. "You have to be committed. Your life pretty much revolves around other people's emergencies."

Begay said her rookie year was more productive than most because the department held several live burns for training during the summer.

"I really got to experience more than rookie classes have in years past," she said.

The physical commitment to firefighting is a personal one, Begay said. There are no training rules or requirements. Keeping in shape is a firefighter's own prerogative.

"You have to be physically fit to do your job, that's just part of your commitment to the department and yourself," she said. "It can be a dangerous job, to you and your coworkers, if you're not healthy."

Begay admitted that with her other obligations, she has not been exercising as much as she should, but plans to get back on her cardiovascular and weight training regimine.

Begay is also a high school cheerleading coach and said she gets physically fit while practicing that sport.

To enroll as a rookie firefighter, Begay had to apply, take a psychiatric exam, go through an oral interview, and undergo a full physical and physical agility test.

The rigors of rookie training give applicants the chance to discover if firefighting is what they really want to do, Mason said. They are assigned a mentor, who helps rookies set goals, trains them and is generally responsible for them. Begay's mentor was Dennis Jones. She said both he and Johnston were key to her success.

"Without the support of the department, no rookie is going to have as successful of a year as they could have," Begay said. "I'm very fortunate in all aspects of my life in that I have support for all I do."

Begay is the only woman in a fire department full of men, but she said she doesn't notice.

"You really don't see the separation between male and female there," she said. "I see it as one big family because here, you're just a member of the team."

Women have been working as volunteer firefighters since the early 1800s although the first full-time woman firefighter was not hired until 1974. Despite the number of years women have been involved in firefighting, they still face gender biases.

"The barriers that confront fire service women in the late 1990s are the same ones that face any traditionally-excluded group beginning to make inroads in a new workplace," said Rebecca Saunders, spokesman for Women in the Fire Service.

Items Women in the Fire Service list as barriers are:

Skepticism about women's competence as firefighters;

Emotional attachment to an all-male work environment;

Uncertainty over behavioral expectations in a mixed-gender workforce; and

Distrust of women's motivation for becoming firefighters.

None of these issues affect Craig Fire/Rescue, Begay said.

"I don't feel any different than anyone else on the department," she said. "They don't treat me any differently or lower their expectations.

"There's no 'me and them.' There can't be. If there was a 'me' and a 'them' then I wouldn't do it."

Mason agreed.

"I can't say she's one of the guys, because she's not, but she mixes in real well," he said. "As far as fighting a fire goes, I don't think anyone notices a difference when it's Kamisha."

Mason admits it may be a difficult job for a woman because the workforce is centered around so many men. It's one of those jobs, he said, where you're not really working in mixed company.

"It takes a special person who really wants to do it," Mason said.

Begay brings a strong medical background to the department and Mason expects she will step in and help with ambulance calls. She will also bring her teaching skills to the department and could be useful teaching other rookies and making other firefighters better teachers, Mason said.

Begay moved to Craig in August 1991, after graduating from Colorado College in Colorado Springs. She was hired as a high school social studies teacher by the Moffat County School District for her first teaching job.

"I can't tell you when I decided to teach," she said. "It was always in the back of my mind."

Begay finally decided to pursue a career in teaching during her second year in college, and had to spend five years in school to earn the necessary certification.

To Begay, teaching seemed like a natural progression from her days as a high school tutor.

"I've been doing stuff with kids as far back as I can remember," she said.

Begay is an amateur jewelry designer, learning the craft from her father, who is a full-blooded Najavo Indian and a well-known artist. She thought for some time she would follow in his footsteps and become a jewelry designer.

"It's that creative outlet; I love that," she said.

She chose teaching instead.

Now she is a full-time teacher, rides with the ambulance crew and is a firefighter.

"There are not a whole lot of breaks, but that's self-inflicted," she said.

The job brings heartaches and headaches, but the sense of self-satisfaction keeps her going, Begay said.

"There's that satisfaction of just being able to help people, not being a bystander," she said. "I hope to be involved with it for a long time. I can't imagine my life without it now. It's an adrenaline rush. When you're right in the middle of it, you know you're alive."

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