Wapiti volunteer firefighter Carolyn Krez vividly remembers the first time she responded to a fire in Milwaukee. Her first call was a house fire. Excited – adrenaline pumping – she entered the burning house.
“As I was coming in, a guy was sitting in the chair,” she said of the scene before her. “It looked like he was sleeping (holding) a cigarette.”
A victim of smoke inhalation, the man had died before firefighters had arrived, their training in emergency medical services unneeded.
Having spent 25 years as a full-time, paid firefighter with the Milwaukee Fire Department before retiring one year ago, Krez brings wide-ranging experience to the Park County Fire Protection District 2 volunteer force.
Not only is her city background unconventional for rural Wyoming, Krez stands out in a male-dominated organization as the second woman to ever join District 2, and the second female at Wapiti. The only other female firefighter to sign on with the Wapiti Valley Fire Department was Caitlyn Dallinger – active 1998-2002.
Sixteen years passed before Krez joined Wapiti Engine 9 last December.
Historically nationwide, few women have served as firefighters. When Krez joined the Milwaukee Fire Department in 1993, there were maybe 20 women, she said. In later years, the department employed close to 50 women out of 650 firefighters.
That male-female ratio is in line with the national trend. There are more than 1.1 million firefighters in the United States. Only 7 percent are women on paid or volunteer forces, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
First Cody woman
One of the Cody Fire Department’s newest recruits, Tessa Rouane, is Cody’s first female firefighter; a distinction she takes matter-of-factly.
“I haven’t got my feet wet on a lot of things yet,” Rouane said. “But I’m excited to.”
When her first emergency page came in, Rouane said she was a “little panicky.”
Before she signed on, Rouane observed the 4-5 co-workers she knew at Cody Labs respond to fire calls.
“The guys’ pagers would go off, and they’d say, ‘OK, see ya,’” she said. “The first time mine went off, I had to decide what to put first.”
Expected somewhere else at the same time, she had to make a split-second choice: Go on the fire call or go to the other obligation.
Rouane recalls feeling slightly nervous responding to the first vehicle accident call, and she was somewhat bewildered when in late June a nonemergency page to remove a bear from a tree went out.
“Did I hear that right?” she thought.
Cody police and firefighters helped Game and Fish that morning retrieve a small black bear from a tree near the Center of the West.
As a rookie, Rouane isn’t allowed to ride on the first rescue truck out, and the force won’t take two rookies at one time. When she finally hopped on a truck, it was to a driftwood fire on the reservoir up the South Fork.
Firefighting, though the intrinsic rewards are great, is no easy task. It requires hard work, long hours of training, dedication and a sincere desire to help others.
At 52, Krez is a confident veteran. She has faced death in the line of duty and survived.
The more reserved 26-year-old Rouane moved to the area about four years ago when she took a job with Cody Labs as a controlled substance specialist. With that business set to close, she hopes she can find another employer in Cody that allows firefighting. If not, she is committed to making weekend and night calls.
She was methodical in her decision to volunteer. Looking for a way to contribute to her community and meet more people, she asked around for ideas. Some people suggested joining Rotary or Soroptimist. But Rouane knew those service organizations were not the right choice for her.
She played on a co-ed softball team with assistant fire chief Shane Spradlin and she knew firefighters at work, and so she started investigating.
“I asked them all my questions,” she said. “They told me no girls were on the department. That was a little intimidating.”
Her concerns addressed, she decided to complete an application in hope the active firefighters would vote in her favor, making Rouane the Cody Fire Department’s first female firefighter and District 2’s third ever.
When Rouane told her parents of her decision, she said her mom, a nurse who started out as an emergency medical technician, was especially excited for her.
Both women say they felt a little out of place as the only female among the formerly all-male force when they attended their first fire hall meeting.
Soon they were part of the gang, taking turns cooking and cleaning during training sessions. Good cooks, male or female, are appreciated.
“Firefighting’s a lot of fun,” Krez said. “Then, when things are serious, you know things are serious.”
“When you’re around them, you see that switch and appreciate it,” added Rouane.
To help, the men willingly point new techniques or demonstrate a different method, they said.
“If you don’t know, (the men) show you how to do it, or they show you two ways,” Rouane said. “Everyone’s different. Each shows their way and you decide what’s best.”
Rural versus city
Tired of big city living, after her retirement Carolyn and her husband Bob Krez moved to Wapiti, where the couple is building a home near the Wapiti Lodge and the Wapiti Engine 9 station.
Trained as an EMT and certified at the highest firefighter level, her main hurdle wasn’t about gender; it was to show she wasn’t there to show off.
“The guys were worried a big city firefighter would know a lot,” she said.
But cities aren’t known for wilderness fires, typical this time of year in Park County and Yellowstone country. To learn how to fight Wyoming grass fires, Krez attended a five-day training session in Buffalo.
“The big thing is access to water here,” she said. “In the city, there’s a hydrant at every corner.”
Physical by nature
In Park County Fire Protection District 2, exceptions are not made for women firefighters. Krez and Rouane undergo the same training and have the same certification requirements.
Firefighting is physical by nature – a fact that does not daunt either woman who wear the same protective gear as men: Heat resistant helmets, fireproof pants and jackets, heavily insulated gloves and waterproof, steel-toed boots. An air pack composed of a mask with a hose connected to a tank filled with oxygen adds another 40 pounds, roughly equivalent to five gallons of water.
According to the National Testing Network, firefighter candidates wear a 50-pound vest to simulate the weight of the clothing and breathing apparatus when taking the Candidate Physical Abilities Test, a national certification test that shows whether candidates are physically able to perform essential job tasks at fire scenes. The eight test events are stair climb, hose drag, equipment carry, ladder raise and extension, forcible entry, search, rescue and ceiling breach and pull.
Each woman also underwent a physical exam involving a treadmill test along with hearing, breathing, eyes and back exams.
A track and field college athlete ranked ninth nationally in shot put, Krez was the only one of five sisters to participate in sports. Fit and toned, she worked for a health club in Milwaukee for five years and in Cody teaches water aerobics at the Rec Center.
Firefighting is physical, she said.
“You want to make sure you’re in pretty good physical shape,” she said.
Rouane grew up on a ranch in Columbus, Mont. Physical labor was part of the family’s lifestyle as was sports, which was a “big part of the household,” Rouane said. After high school she signed on as a post player for the Miles City Community College, women’s basketball team in Montana.
With her background, Rouane was not intimidated by the physical demands of firefighting.
“It made me more confident,” she said.
When it comes to muscle power, it helps, too, that firefighters work together.
“Teamwork is a big factor,” Krez said.
For her, the challenge isn’t physical, it’s balancing firefighting time with work and school. Besides training nights for rookie firefighters and regular department trainings, plus the community service firefighters routinely do, she takes online classes toward earning a bachelor’s degree in business management.
Firefighters have their own language, and another aspect to training is learning fire hall lingo, the women said.
“It’s great to have another woman,” Krez said. To others of her gender, she says the key is to have a good sense of humor and a willingness to work hard.
“The guys are really good, though” Krez adds.
Big city firefighter
That few women were career police officers did not keep Carolyn Krez from pursuing her dream job.
She earned a two-year associate’s degree in police science only to face disappointment the first few years of job hunting. Then her dad saw a fire department ad.
“Why not try firefighting?” he asked.
Taking that advice, she attended a 16-week firefighting academy where she trained with mostly men. She had 30 seconds to put everything on: hat, coat, pants, boots, helmet, air pac.
Par for course on paid forces, she trained in first aid and CPR, she also picked up EMT certification required of paid firefighters.
Changing careers did not mean a change in her aspiration to serve a greater good.
“Felt the passion to help people,” she says. “Both jobs are rewarding. Every day is different. It’s not like sitting behind a desk.”
Once hired, she worked a shift schedule of 24 hours on with 48 hours off.
It was a good schedule to raise son Eddie, now a sophomore student at Concordia University Wisconsin.
“It’s different before you have kids and after,” she said. “Things get more interesting.”
Involved in a “bad fire” in Milwaukee, Krez ran out of air. As she waited for help, her thoughts turning to her son and parents in a vision she describes as surreal, her boss gave his assurance.
“I’m not going to leave you alone,” he said.
“One thing about this job is, you have to trust the person you’re with,” Krez said.
When on duty, she and her crew were kept busy responding to as many as 20 runs per day.
“You don’t sleep a lot when you’re on a paid force,” she said.
By contrast, Wapiti averages 20-25 calls per year and Cody, 320-330 on average.
Once on the job in the city, Krez had ready access to gear at the fire hall whereas in rural Park County, she might be in Cody when a Wapiti alarm is activated.
In Milwaukee, as a paid firefighter, she worked with the same people on every run. When with the volunteer force, depending on who’s available, Krez may find herself working beside a different mix of firefighters with different backgrounds – a horse rancher, a park tour guide, a fisherman – her fellow firefighters are the people who make up the Wapiti community.