N.H.'s women fire chiefs 'ahead of the curve'
HOLDERNESS — When Dick Mardin, the town’s longtime fire chief, retired in 2007 members of the fire department began a search for someone, maybe one among them, who could fill Mardin’s shoes.
They needed an experienced firefighter, preferably an officer, and preferably someone who knew the town well. But most importantly, they needed someone who could handle the tough job of leading 30 call firefighters in high-pressure situations.
The search didn’t take long. They had someone with all of those attributes – one of Mardin’s offspring, no less – on staff, an accomplished U.S. Navy veteran who had been a captain in the department since 1993.
So a few firefighters approached Capt. Eleanor Mardin, who gladly accepted the job, and has been chief ever since.
Knowing the staff of the department well, and having received fair and equal treatment in the Navy, Mardin said she didn’t expect any different reaction or treatment because she is a woman in what has traditionally been a man’s job.
“It’s been great, it’s very much like the military, a person’s gender is not important, it’s the work you do that’s important,” she said.
In accepting the position, Mardin became the fifth female fire chief in the state, and joined the growing ranks of professional female firefighters in the country, said Deb Pendergast of Gilford, a fire chief at the Division of Fire Standards and Training in Concord.
The other female chiefs are Hill Fire Chief Deanna Ford, who became chief in her town nine years ago, Stoddard's Fire Chief Patricia Lamothe and Fitzwilliam's Fire Chief Nancy Carney.
Pendergast, who is in her 23rd year as a firefighter, having been an officer in the Laconia Fire Department for much of her career, said there has been a growth of female firefighters nationally in recent years. She works with several groups promoting fire service as a good career for young women.
According to the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Service, women have served as chiefs of volunteer fire departments since at least the 1930s. The organization, founded in 1982, estimates there are more than 150 female volunteer fire chiefs active in the U.S. at any given time, and that “some 6,200 women in the U.S. work as career firefighters and officers, with perhaps 40,000 in the volunteer, paid-on-call, part-time and seasonal sectors.”
Ford, Mardin and Pendergast said they each grew up around fire stations because of family involvement in fire service. “But there weren’t many women role models back then,” Pendergast said. “A woman chief was almost unheard of.”
The job of a firefighter requires physical strength and agility, “and there are a lot of men still who don’t think we can do the job well enough,” she said. To pass required fire academy courses, fire cadets must lift and push weights, and women fail those tests at a higher rate than men, she said.
“My upper body strength is less than a male’s of my size, there’s no doubting that, but it just means women have to work a little harder,” she said.
While a man might easily pull a victim from a fire by the shoulders, a woman must use different techniques. “But we can still pull the person from the fire, just as a man can,” she said.
“We still have to prove ourselves to some people in some aspects, but most people realize we can do the job,” Ford said.
Ford said the perspective of being a female firefighter helps her be a better chief.
“Everyone has limitations on what they can do. I can’t start our chainsaws, but others can’t either. That we have these limitations is not important. But as chief, it’s important for me to know what everyone’s limitations are,” Ford said.
The chiefs encourage young women to consider fire service as a career.
“I would recommend it for anyone considering it, it’s a great job and I’ve enjoyed it,” Mardin said.
“The only thing is,” Ford said, “you have to really want to do it.”
“You have to stay in shape and work out a lot to be able to do the job,” Pendergast said. “But it can be a great career for women, just as it is for men.”
Ford’s daughter, Sarah Ford, 7, wants to be an EMT, and possibly a firefighter when she’s an adult.
“I want to help people,” she said.