TUALATIN VALLEY, Oregon – Captain Karen Bureker was unsure whether she wanted to have children when she became a fire paramedic nearly 20 years ago.
But after getting married, Bureker and her husband decided to start a family. It was during her first pregnancy, after six years of labor, that Bureker realized how difficult the transition from firefighter to mother would be as she rose through the ranks of her male-dominated profession.
“It’s a really great job being a mom, but it’s a really tough job,” she said. “My children, as they get older, are starting to understand some of the risks we take. But they love that their mother is a firefighter.
Bureker, 44, is part of a rare sorority. Earlier this month, she became the first female fire captain at Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue near Portland, where she began her career 19 years ago. At the time, only six women worked as firefighters in the department, she said.
“We were definitely new to the fire scene,” she added. “The world has changed a lot since then, and our jobs have changed a lot. We’ve had a lot of men very interested in the pushes that have helped us become a more inclusive and diverse fire service.
Despite the pressure for more diversity in hiring, less than 5% of career firefighters across the country are women, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Like their male counterparts, these women face increasingly difficult conditions as drought, climate change and heat waves contribute to longer, hotter and deadlier fire seasons.
These women also face additional mental stress due to gender discrimination, as well as an increased risk of miscarriage and other reproductive harm from repeated exposure to smoke and other toxins. .
“When you think of a firefighter, you think of a man,” said Jenna Gray, who recently attended a firefighter camp for young women interested in learning more about the profession. “I think it’s really important for young girls to see that they too can do those jobs that only men in the last few years who know how many years have been doing. It just makes you feel like” I can do everything. “”
Yet a new generation of female firefighters face a system that was never designed to include them. Few departments offer uniforms tailored specifically to women, requiring them to wear ill-fitting protective gear and exposing them to environmental risks.
According to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, 70% of active duty firefighter deaths in 2016 were caused by cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters have a 9% higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general population.
Women on the ground also face gender-specific cancers that have not yet been fully studied and understood, including how chemicals in firefighting equipment and smoke can affect their reproductive organs.
According to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, all firefighters are regularly exposed to chemicals, including carbon monoxide and other carcinogens, which have been linked to miscarriages, birth defects, slowing of fetal growth and impaired brain development.
A 2018 study found that 27% of firefighters’ pregnancies ended in miscarriage and premature births were nearly 7 percentage points above the national average of 10%. The study also found that “despite the recognized risks to maternal and child health, quantitative data on pregnancy outcomes is lacking in the current literature.”
“The lack of scientific data on the impact of occupation-specific risks on reproductive health has been cited as limiting fair employment policies and employee rights as early as three decades ago and as having a negative impact on reproductive health. recruitment and retention of female firefighters, ”the authors wrote.
When Bureker first joined Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue, the department had no official pregnancy policy. She has worked to change that over the years by creating a reproductive health package for all members of the force, including women.
Bureker and her colleagues participate in an annual campfire for young women between the ages of 16 and 21. Launched in 2009 in the Portland metro area, the camp is an opportunity for a new generation of would-be firefighters to throw ladders, push themselves off buildings and practice putting out fires.
The three-day campfire is free for young girls and allows women to see female firefighters in action and envision these roles for their future. Gray said that after her experience, she eventually wanted to join a team and have a career in firefighting.
Jen Ward, who works as a paramedic at Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue, led this year’s fire camp outside of Portland. She said she still felt emotion thinking about the young women she met.
“It chokes me a bit, the things that some of these girls say and how powerful we have been with them are just mind blowing,” she said. “I tell them, ‘As happy as you are here, I’m so proud of you. And the things that you girls have done and have done and can do, there are no limits. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do what you want.
Oregon State Representative Dacia Grayber, a Democrat who represents parts of Multnomah and Washington counties, was 10 when she turned to her volunteer firefighter father and told him that she wanted to follow in his footsteps. A captain standing nearby mocked.
“Oh, honey, girls are not firefighters,” she recalls of the captain, saying, “but you could join the female helper and you could bake cookies. “
Grayber is now a mother of four and has been fighting fires for two decades. Last year, she became the nation’s second firefighter elected to a state legislature and helped push through a bill in the Oregon House of Representatives that will guarantee 12 weeks of paid family leave to all. residents from 2023.
Before Grayber decided to run for office, she found herself in a meeting with Representative Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat, about lawmakers’ efforts to ban asbestos when her phone screen lit up. Her husband, also a firefighter, texted her to tell her that she had been diagnosed with advanced throat cancer.
“We realized we were a family of two firefighters. We have four children. How do we do that? “Grayber wondered.” I should use up all of my sick leave. And wouldn’t it be amazing if we had something like paid family time off? So we brought our story to the Capitol to the State and have testified about it. ”
Making his debut in the so-called boys’ club was not easy. When Grayber told her ex-husband that she wanted to be a firefighter, he said it was “cute.”
His first job as a professional firefighter was at a station where they had never hired a woman before. While on tour, she noticed inappropriate magazines lying around in a locker room. When she arrived on the first day of work, magazines had been replaced by a pink towel, a vase filled with plastic flowers, and the Sunset travel magazine.
“It was the funniest thing,” she said. “I put them all away very discreetly. Like, we don’t have to do that.
Haley Talbot and Julie Tsirkin reported from Oregon, Alicia Victoria Lozano reported from Los Angeles.