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Pa. FD’s first all-woman initial attack crew marks a turning point in its 124-year history

“During the moment, we didn’t notice that we were all females,” Firefighter Stover said. “We just looked at each other as our crew for the night”

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Lieutenant Claudia Rudisill, Firefighter Talia Cholach, and Firefighter Kara Stover took the initial attack line off of Engine 5-1 into a three-alarm dwelling fire during a call in September.

Alpha Fire Company

By Reece Coren
Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — A trio of Alpha Fire Company volunteers got plenty of attention this fall after the first all-woman initial attack crew in the 124-year history of the fire company, but it’s not likely to be the last.

When Centre Region Fire Director Shawn Kauffman joined the State College fire company 35 years ago, he said there was just one woman firefighter there. There are now 12 Alpha volunteer firefighters who are women, he said. That includes Lieutenant Claudia Rudisill and firefighters Kara Stover and Talia Cholach — two Penn State students and one recent graduate — who made history at the scene of the Sept. 21 College Township fire.

The movement of more women firefighters isn’t just happening in State College, Kauffman said — more women are volunteering at fire stations across the country.

“For us, it’s becoming the norm rather than an unusual event,” Kauffman said. “As we celebrated this one, I told the company we probably won’t ever do that again; it’s so normal for us, it’s not going to be an odd thing.”

While the number of women firefighters has increased locally and nationwide, women still make up just 9% of all firefighters in the U.S., according to the 2020 U.S. Fire Department Profile report. Centre County had its first female fire chief just last year, with Bobbi Salvanish taking the title at the Logan Fire Company .

After joining Alpha at the start of the spring semester, Stover, a 19-year-old Penn State student, said she trained from January to May. She said it feels “pretty cool” to be part of the first all-woman initial attack line in the 124-year history of the Alpha Fire Company.

“During the moment, we didn’t notice that we were all females,” Stover said. “We just looked at each other as our crew for the night.”

Stover, Rudisill and Cholach were on their way to the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology to review for an upcoming test when they got multiple calls.

“In the fire service, if you hear a report of multiple calls, you know it’s the real deal,” Stover said.

Because her unit was the first one to arrive on the scene, Stover said they were able to fill the most important seats first.

Stover has been volunteering with fire departments since she was a junior in high school, but said Sept. 21 was “her first real fire.” At one point, Stover said she had to step back, catch her breath and say, “Wow, this is actually happening.”

“I was extremely nervous, but at the same time, a lot of my training kicked in,” Stover said. “I knew what to do.”

Rudisill said she started volunteering when she was 14, the youngest age junior firefighters are allowed to start, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council’s Junior Firefighter Program handbook. She was able to start right away because her father was a firefighter and her local fire department had a junior firefighter program and hit “full firefighter status” at 18. She joined Alpha in the spring of 2020.

While many fire stations consist of middle-aged, white males, Rudisill said Alpha does things differently. Because it’s located so close to Penn State, she said Alpha can find more younger volunteers.

“You’re either college-age or almost middle age (at Alpha),” Rudisill, a 22-year-old recent Penn State graduate, said. “There’s not much of a bridge (in) between.”

Stover said their youth can be a benefit.

“We’re in some of the best shape that we’ll be in in our entire lives,” Stover said. “We start young and we’re able to build on these skills our entire lives.”

While Rudisill describes fighting fires as “exhausting” with the potential for long hours — the Sept. 21 fire was deemed under control around 7 p.m., but they didn’t leave the scene until closer to 10 — there’s also a sense of camaraderie.

When leaving a scene, Stover and Rudisill said they unwind by listening to music and jamming out. Rudisill said they have “a whole truck playlist” that includes “songs that everyone knows the words to.”

After the Sept. 21 fire, Stover said the trio didn’t know they made up the first all-woman initial attack line in Alpha’s history until their truck lieutenant congratulated them.

While it may have felt the same as fighting any other fire in the moment, Rudisill said taking a step back and what their accomplishment means for future women firefighters has been “amazing.”

“Your biggest battle is overcoming what you think you can’t do,” Rudisill said. “You can do a lot, you just have to try.”

Stover echoed a similar message.

“Don’t ever underestimate yourself, you can do it just as well as the guys can,” she said. “Don’t look at yourself as any different, you’re just there to get the job done.”


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