Firefighting women

Española Fire Department Lt. Theresa Martinez (left) and firefighter Maggie Hart stand in front of one of the Department’s fire engines. The only two women in a department of 17, Martinez will celebrate 20 years with the Department in May and Hart just passed her firefighting exams at the end of February.

   Nationwide, only about 4 percent of firefighters are women. At the Española Fire Department, it’s more than double that, with two of the 17 firefighters on the payroll, or 11 percent, being women. Firefighter Maggie Hart recently passed her Firefighter I & II training, making her the third woman in the department’s history to join its ranks.

    “I always wanted to be a firefighter all my life,” she said. “I’ve always had a drive to help my community, and this is a really tangible way of doing it.”

    Before taking the entrance exams last year, Hart was working as a grocery store general manager in Dixon. She attended culinary school and started the restaurant side of the market before completely turning around.

    “I could have stayed there forever, but I started a new career and I started all the way at the bottom again, which I don’t mind because I really like a challenge,” she said. “As I started getting older, I realized that if I really did want to follow my dream of being a firefighter, now is the time because it’s physically demanding, especially the entrance exams.”

    Hart said she applied to all the area departments, but when she tested in Española she immediately felt welcomed and that it felt like family.

    “I think that’s the beauty in having a smaller department,” she said. “We’re small, but we’re more mighty. I think that it’s very courageous on everybody’s part. Because, you know, Los Alamos has 130 people in their department, Santa Fe has 500 or something, and we have 17.

    “Everybody shows up and has been doing it for years,” she said. “I think it speaks to something about the dedication of the people in my department.”

    The physical challenge of the training was demanding, and women firefighters aren’t held to different physical standards from men, like in P.E. class (or in the Army, which just recently adopted gender-neutral fitness requirements last year). But, it didn’t prove to be the biggest challenge of the job for Hart.

    “When I went down to the fire academy, the first few days I was like, ‘I can’t do this. What am I doing with my life? Like, why am I here?’” she said. “And then the third day, when we started actually doing live burns and the first fire they lit, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this.’”

    The biggest challenge, Hart found, was leaving her children, ages 10 and 14, for 48 hours at a time for a shift. It’s a difficulty shared by the other woman in the Department, who has four children of her own.

    Lieutenant Theresa Martinez joined the department in 2001, and is the first woman to do so in Española. She described similar apprehensions about the physical tests, but she learned she was soon able to easily match the men.

    She shared the similar challenge for her was leaving her family. The firefighters’ schedule involves 48 hours on, followed by four days off—an obvious trade-off for Martinez, who appreciates the extended time with her family.

    “It was initially hard for me, myself, because I raised four kids within this time of working,” Martinez said. “I had three prior to starting this job and then I had one after I’d started, but I still had to raise them. I’ve never been away from the kids, I have always been like, day-in, day-out unless I’m working in the daytime job and whatnot, but to be away from them for the 24 hours at a time was my hardest challenge.

    “Then we went to a 48-hour shift, which I didn’t want to do mentally, but I knew in the long run it was going to be worth it because four days is obviously way better than having two days off, you know?”

    This aspect of motherhood is, according to both, the most challenging part of being a woman in firefighting, but both have learned to balance their careers and motherhood in what can easily be one of the most demanding public service positions.

    Martinez said that when she first started the job, she kept quiet about missing her kids, because she wasn’t sure the men, whom she describes as her “brothers,” could empathize. For Hart, having someone who had been through similar struggles was a boon.

    “I’m lucky because I have Theresa, so she understands totally, she did it already, so I can talk to her,” Hart said. “It’s different being a mom than being a dad. I’ve never heard any of the dads in our department talk about the challenges of leaving their kids for 48 hours. I’m not saying they don’t miss them, but, I think that as a mom, maybe you bear that burden a little bit more.”

    Martinez, who was promoted to lieutenant five years ago and has been with the department for a total of 20 years in May, is eligible to retire this year, but it’s just an option that she isn’t committed to yet.

    “I would not have had a successful career in the fire service if it wasn’t for a few people that helped with watching the kids and always showing support—my mother- and father-in-law Samuel and Virginia Martinez, nana, Joann Fernandez and Donaven Trujillo,” Martinez said. “My biggest supporters are my husband Adrian, and our kids Joaquin, Andrew, Autum and Audrey, they all sacrificed many holidays and birthdays during the last 20 years.”

    Hart, for her part, doesn’t have ambitions for leadership at this point and just hopes to learn and gain experience, along with welcoming additional female firefighters to the ranks. She offered some advice for people interested in the career.

    “My advice would be to never give up on your dreams, because if you want it bad enough, you can get it,” Hart said. “When I did the physical agility test for testing for this department, I was exhausted, it’s demanding. The only way that I made it through was through determination, because I was not gonna make it that far and lose.

    “I almost, I almost didn’t make it,” she said. “But Theresa was like, ‘this is your partner. Get ‘em out of there.’ And that gave me the last little boost that I needed.”

    Martinez, who failed the rigorous test for the lieutenant position three times only to pass on her fourth, offers similar advice.

    “There’s two things you don’t do is, you never say ‘I can’t,’ and ‘I give up,’” she said. “If you don’t make it the first time you try again, if you don’t make it the second time, you try it again if it’s something you want to do, and don’t ever tell yourself you can’t do it.”

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