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How a Ky. FD aims to keep increasing number of female firefighters

In the last 10 years, the Lexington Fire Department has more than doubled the number of women on staff to 27


Joselin Barrera, student of Bryan Station High School, sprays a fire hose during the Brenda Cowan Camp with the assistance of firefighters Sarah McGill, center, and Megan Morrell, right. Lexington fire department hosted the Brenda Cowan Camp Nov. 16, 2022, for girls ages 16 to 25 in remembrance of Brenda Cowan, Lexington s first Black female firefighter, who was killed in the line of duty on February 13, 2004.

Photo/Marcus Dorsey via MCT

By Christopher Leach
Lexington Herald-Leader

LEXINGTON, Ky. — In the last nine years, the Lexington Fire Department has more than doubled the amount of women it has on staff to 27.

That means 4.7% of the fire department staff is female. That percentage has grown throughout the last 10 years – it was 2.4% in 2013, 2.7% in 2016 and 3.6% just three years ago.

According to Maj. Jessica Bowman, that percentage is consistent with the national average of women who are paid firefighters. According to a study from the National Fire Protection Association, only 4% of full-time firefighters nationwide were female at the time of the study.

When accounting for volunteer firefighters, 8% of firefighters nationwide were female at the time of the study. Females made up 11% of volunteer firefighters nationwide at the time.

One way the fire department has raised its percentage of women on staff is through educational programs like the Brenda Cowan Fire Camp. Last month, the fire department invited females between the ages of 16 and 25 to the fire training center to introduce them to a hands-on experience with the fire service, emphasizing sisterhood and empowerment.

Twenty-five teenagers and young women signed up for this year’s camp, which was in its fifth edition.

Campers had the opportunity to advance hose lines, climb ladders, repel from ropes, learn CPR and ask questions about the unique challenges facing women pursuing a career in a primarily male profession.

Battalion Chief Maria Roberts, a 23-year veteran with the Lexington Fire Department, said she thinks the camp is a beneficial experience for women and huge for the future of female firefighters.

“You get the opportunity to experience and challenge yourself and figure out, ‘this is something I can do,’” Roberts said.

The camp was named after Brenda Cowan, the first Black female in the Lexington Fire Department who died in the line of duty.

According to Herald-Leader archives, Cowan was a trained paramedic and a University of Kentucky graduate. She was hired by the Lexington Fire Department in 1996 and served with the fire department for 11 years up until her death.

On Feb. 13, 2004, Cowan was shot by Patrick Hutchinson while rendering aid to Hutchinson’s wife who suffered injuries from a domestic-related incident.

One week prior to the incident, Cowan was promoted to lieutenant, making her the first Black female within the Lexington Fire Department to achieve that rank.

“She and other women really had started to lay the foundation for us to come in and be accepted,” Roberts said.

Roberts has enjoyed a successful 23-year career with the Lexington Fire Department. She has even raised two boys during her tenure as a firefighter.

Roberts credited her schedule – 24 hours on followed by 48 hours off – for allowing her to experience the best of both worlds.

“I felt like I got to have a career but then, especially through the first preschool years from birth till they started school, I was home two out of every three days all day with my kids,” Roberts said.

‘There’s not a single thing on this job that any female can’t do’

A lot of women in the Lexington Fire Department have a unique story about their path to being a firefighter.

Cali Warta, a four-year firefighter/paramedic with the fire department, is the first one in her family to work for a fire department and didn’t take an interest in it until after trying out nursing school and other professions.

At 21 years old, Warta worked as a skating instructor for the Eastern Kentucky University men’s hockey team. Warta grew up on the ice – she began figure skating when at 4 years old and played on the boys’ hockey team at Henry Clay High School.

A lot of the players on the team were fire science majors, and they opened up Warta to the firefighting world. She took an interest in it and did a lot of research on what it takes to be a firefighter.

“I wanted to do something admirable,” Warta said.

Warta applied to the fire department but got denied. She said she hates being told no, so she applied again four years later at the age of 25 and got accepted the second time around.

Warta’s strength and background as an athlete made the fire training academy more manageable for her, she said. She found she was able to perform the difficult tasks alongside the men in her class and just had to learn the different techniques.

“The hardest thing for me was learning how to do things my own way, being a little bit shorter or not having as much upper body strength as the guys,” Warta said.

Four years into the job, Warta is happy with her decision to join the Lexington Fire Department and believes there’s nothing that can hold women back from doing this job.

Now says, “I can say without a doubt there’s not a single thing on this job that any female can’t do, you just have to know how to do it with the right body mechanics,” Warta said.


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