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The number of Southwest Florida women choosing to work in firefighting is growing

Posted at 8:07 PM, Mar 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-21 05:19:26-04

LEE COUNTY, Fla. — Historically when the public thinks about firefighters, a male first responder and community leader, may come to mind. But here at home Fox 4 discovered more women are joining the field.

Let's put women working in firefighting in perspective for you. A recent federal report described a "lag" behind other male-dominated fields. Here in the U.S. women only represent 5 percent of all career firefighters. For volunteer firefighters, that number jumps to 11%.

To understand that perspective, Fox 4 Meteorologist Andrew Shipley spoke to three firefighters hoping to inspire the next generation of young women.

"They can look up at me and say 'oh my gosh - she is just a normal person," said Lehigh Acres Fire District Field Training Officer Sarah Gribbin.

Visibility is important for Gribbin. She remembers not seeing female firefighters come to her school. Now young girls get to see her.

"...She is just a normal woman who fulfilling her dreams and I can do this too," said Gribben.

"Young ones on the scene of calls, 'they are like a fire girl,’ said Lehigh Acres Fire District Lt. Lisa VanderMeulen, echoing Gribben’s comments.

Lt. VanderMeulen added, "It's really exciting to see and encourage them and say you can do this too."

VanderMeulen and Gribbin are among examples showing how Southwest Florida women choosing to work in firefighting is growing.

There's also Cape Coral Fire Engineer Amanda Mardis. Inside her department, CCFD consists of 5.3% of women firefighters. That's just above the national average.

"When I started, I got hired with another female. We're number 2 and 3 that were coming on shift," said Mardis.

And even after 10 years of driving Engine 10, she's still having a blast.

"Operating a siren and horn. It's still fun. We were all kids at one time and loved to hear the siren and the horn. And it's cool to still press the button and be in control,” said Mardis.

And when she's on a scene Mardis says her size is a strength.

"Sometimes when we have rollover vehicles and you only have about this much room to crawl in,” said Mardis. “You are going to pick me over a big muscle-bound guy to go in because it's quicker for me to get in there."

Lehigh Fire's Gribbin and VanderMeulen see it as a strength in diversity.

"There is a need for every different quality out there,” said VanderMeulen. “So don't ever think that you don't fit into a mold. Or that you might not be strong enough or tall enough or big enough. There is a need for what you have to offer."

"We are on stress calls and families, you see a whole group of men and everything, you are kind of feel more pushed and driven towards a woman,” said Gribbin. “And I feel like we add that extra bit of compassion to this position."

Many of our local fire departments, including Cape Coral, all participate in something called Camp Braveheart, put on by the Iona McGregor Fire Department, to help encourage young girls to enter the fire service.