Jenny Richard of Milford is a wedding planner. Christen Grugnale owns a photography business in Peabody. Katherine Sorrows, who lives in Billerica, is earning a master’s degree in science education. Deborah Kablotsky of Carlisle works for a software company. Andrea Ball is a paramedic and community health educator from Newburyport. Sierra Renaghan works as a lab technician at a life sciences company in Worcester.
They range in age from 25 to 52, and their lives intersected at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy in Stow, when they became part of the largest class of women ever to graduate from the academy’s Call/Volunteer Recruit Training Program. Of the 40 newly minted firefighters to complete the four-month program in June, 11 were women. Each is now a member of a volunteer/on-call fire department in a Massachusetts community.
Although most large towns and all cities have professional fire departments, numerous smaller communities in Greater Boston include some on-call firefighters on their staff. Though often referred to as volunteer firefighters, they aren’t literally volunteers: towns typically pay these men and women either a minimal stipend or an hourly fee when they are responding to calls, according to Carlisle Fire Chief Bryan Sorrows, who is Katherine’s father and also the only full-time member of the mostly on-call Carlisle Fire Department.
“My business as a wedding planner took a deep dive during COVID,” said Richard. “But it gave me time to slow down and think about what I wanted to do. I felt like something was missing. I’m from a family of nurses, and I felt drawn toward the idea of health care and giving back.”
Nursing school didn’t feel like the right fit, so she instead took EMT training. After she started working with the Hopedale Fire Department, the chief suggested she go to the firefighting academy, which Richard described as “the most incredible experience of my life.”
Kablotsky, who at 52 said she was “not the oldest in the class, but close,” still remembers the moment outside her daughter’s preschool more than 10 years ago when another child’s father — a firefighter himself — encouraged her to consider joining the department. “It seemed like such an important way to give back to the community, but the timing wasn’t right,” Kablotsky said. “My kids were so young, and I was transitioning from being a stay-at-home mom to working full time in the computer industry.”
But the conversation stayed on her mind. At Carlisle’s annual Halloween celebration in 2019, Kablotsky fell into a discussion with another local firefighter and admitted she was curious about the work. The chief overheard her and invited her to come by the fire station to talk more.
“I pointed out that I was already 50 years old,” Kablotsky recalled. “Bryan [Sorrows] said, ‘Don’t worry about that. If you have the drive and the commitment, you can do this.’”
Though the physical demands of the program are rigorous, the new graduates insist none of it was beyond their capabilities. “There is a large misconception that females physically can’t do the job,” said Ball, who is 39 and the mother of a 2-year-old. “One thing the fire academy is so good at teaching us is that people come in all different sizes and shapes and ages and genders, and everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. In the field, everybody works together to accomplish a job.”
“It’s physically challenging but really rewarding and empowering when you’re able to do all the same things the guys are doing,” agreed Richard. “Men have upper body strength in their favor, which makes a big difference when it comes to throwing the ladders, which are a lot heavier than people realize. Figuring out the body mechanics to make it work and succeeding at that is really empowering. I saw every woman in our class accomplish just as much as every man.”
“It was a love-hate relationship,” Grugnale said of the academy program. “It was a lot of work, and at the same time I was running my photography business, so I had a very stressful four months. But the actual training was great.”
Katherine Sorrows, who remembers as a child browsing through her father’s textbook when he himself was attending the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, found a sense of community from the men and women in her class alike. “We started out with online lectures, so once we began in-person training, we made a big effort to get to know each other and be supportive,” she said. “Everyone worked really hard, not just to learn the skills but to help each other. One woman was afraid of heights, so when we did ladder drills we all provided her with extra support. One of the guys had a terrible time tying knots, so everyone devoted a little extra time to practicing with him.”
“We all helped each other out,” agreed Renaghan. “Throwing ladders is a big part of firefighter training. If someone wanted to practice before class started, there were always other people willing to show up early to do it with them.”
Kablotsky appreciates the example her new role sets for her teenage daughters. “I like to think I showed them that you can pick a goal, whatever it might be, and if it’s something you’re passionate about, you can reach that goal, despite the physical and mental challenges,” she said.
Still, she suspects her daughters didn’t fully comprehend her new responsibilities until the local newspaper ran a photo of Kablotsky fighting a brush fire. “My younger daughter said, ‘Mom, that actually looks kind of dangerous!’” she recalled.
For Richard, the wedding planner, the metaphor provided by her two separate spheres of work sometimes proves irresistible. “There’s oddly a lot of similarities,” she said. “Both are about putting out fires, some literal and some figurative. Both jobs require being able to think quickly on your feet and being prepared for anything that might go wrong.”
Ultimately, said Chief Sorrows, what he needs on his fire department has far less to do with gender or even physical prowess than outlook. “We need people committed to the town and to the work,” he said. “You don’t have to walk through the door ready to be at the end of a nozzle or rescue someone. We’re going to give you those skills. It’s just as I told Deb [Kablotsky] when she first talked to me about it: There are ways you’ll be useful on day one. And as you learn more and get better at what you’ve learned, you’ll be more useful to the department in more ways, every day.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at email@example.com.