by Dana Sleger//
In this special section, we honor fearless women who dedicate their lives on a daily basis to help others in times of greatest need. Choosing to work in fire service means accepting a job that is full of highs and lows — rewarding days when a precious life or house full of memories are saved and difficult days when there are no words to bring comfort to unbearable tragedy. Gulf Coast Woman is proud to share the following stories of six career female firefighters who have a combined total of more than 120 years of bravery in this field. We also are very proud to spotlight selfless women who serve as volunteer firefighters in stations throughout the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Thank you, all, for your service!
Michelle Crowley has served the Biloxi Fire Department since 1993 when she began her career as a firefighter. Within four years, she was promoted to driver, and in 2001, Michelle became the first woman in the department’s history to be promoted to Captain. After holding this position for 15 years, she recently was promoted to Battalion Chief of Occupational Health and Safety where her responsibilities entail providing a comprehensive safety and health and risk assessment plan for Biloxi Fire Department.
For the last three years, Michelle has successfully written and managed fire department grants, and will continue to work as a grant writer and project manager. To date, the Biloxi Fire Department has been awarded approximately $1.7 million in grant monies from various entities that allowed for new hires, which provides safer, more efficient fire service to the community. Since April 2016, Biloxi Fire Department has been providing 15 or more firefighters on scene for multi-alarm emergencies 100 percent of the time.
Michelle is the third female to be employed by the Biloxi Fire Department as a firefighter and she encourages other women to pursue a career in fire service because the diversity female firefighters bring assists in developing and building a stronger department and a stronger community.
“It provides an opportunity to challenge yourself beyond what you ever thought you could do in life,” she says. “Salary is based on rank, not gender, so there is opportunity for advancement. You also have the opportunity to spend time at home because of the 24 on/48 off schedule. Women can perform all aspects of this career with hard work, physical fitness, and determination. It’s a rewarding career, but be ready, this job is not something you put on the shelf at 5 o’clock every evening.”
According to Michelle, there are more than 4,000 career female firefighters just in the United States, but says fire service needs to continue work towards the goal of creating a more diversified workforce. “Providing opportunities for women to participate in training for physical agility tests, offering career information to high school students, and providing excellent learning programs, such as the Biloxi Kids Summer Fire Camp and Fire Explorers can influence a female’s decision to join the fire service,” Michelle says.
When Rachel Gnau was issued her first set of turnout gear on Oct. 31, 1981, she says being a firefighter has been a rollercoaster ride of an adventure. There are good days when lives are saved and there are tough days when no words or kindness can take away a family’s agony of losing a loved one.
Because the hardest part of being a firefighter is the collective memories of loss over the years, Rachel’s appreciation for her family holds a very dear place in her life.
“With my grandchildren growing like weeds, my two daughters, spouse, and my father growing older, it’s important to me that they know how much I care for them, so I show them as much as possible,” Rachel says. “The fire service is a great teacher of lessons, and in this job, we learn rather early on that some mistakes can have great consequences. Life is so fleeting and fragile, and possessions are insignificant compared to loved ones. We should strive each and every day to live life, show those that we care about how much we love them and tell them each and every day.”
Rachel has been with the Bay St. Louis Fire Department for almost 12 years, and as a station supervisor and Engine Company Crew Chief, her responsibilities include providing an incident command for any response within her district and sometimes in others, depending on the length and complexity of the incident.
“I go to work every day knowing that what I’m faced with today will be, at least slightly, if not completely different from anything I’ve ever seen before,” Rachel says. “There is no ‘flap A into slot B’ for eight hours a day, but a new unknown 24 hours of problem-solving and incident mitigation. Most of the time we’re not getting invited to enjoyable things; we’re called into people’s lives at a time of tragedy and it’s our calling to resolve that issue with the best outcome possible. If we can provide a solution and bring a little bit of comfort in a time of need, then we have fulfilled our commitment.”
This year, Cathy Hunt Burleson will celebrate 34 years as a firefighter with the Picayune Fire Department. It hasn’t been an easy journey balancing work and family, and there are plenty of holidays where she can recount spending it at the station, but Cathy has no regrets about her career decision.
While working as a waitress in 1983, fire service never crossed her mind until the local chief asked if she was interested in being a dispatcher, which then shifted to being asked if she might consider being a firefighter. Long story short, Cathy also now serves as an EMT, and over the course of more than three decades, she has been promoted from lieutenant to captain and is now a battalion chief.
“I’m pretty proud of the fact that I was the first woman firefighter with Picayune, and I am still the only woman firefighter at Picayune,” she says. “Just being able to help people in their time of need is very rewarding, and knowing that my family and my friends are proud of me for the job that I do.”
Her son, Jason Hunt, also followed his mom’s lead and has been with the Picayune Fire Department for 11 years. Cathy encourages women to pursue a career as a firefighter, but to remember they must give it their all and not expect any special privileges.
“You have to pull your own weight,” she says. “Don’t think just because you’re a female that the guys will do most of the work. It does not work that way and it makes the rest of us females look bad that have worked hard and are determined to pull our own weight and show the men that we can do the job. If you do what is expected of you, in the end, you will be very proud of yourself because you did it by working hard and being determined, and knowing that you did not get any special privileges because you are a woman.”
Prior to joining the Gautier Fire Department two years ago, Samantha Guthrie was a stay-at-home mom for eight years, and before that she had a career as a registered nurse. When the time came to embrace the working world again, Samantha knew she needed something that would provide for her three daughters, yet be fulfilling for her at the same time.
“I began my search and was really just looking to have a physical job that wouldn’t necessarily keep me cooped up inside or at a desk,” Samantha says. “I considered firefighting because I felt like it fit well with other activities that I do. I found that Gautier was hiring and I saw what the hiring process involved and gave it a go. I knew the physical portion was the first part and I was just really excited to show up get the job done.”
The decision to become a full-time firefighter was the perfect fit for Samantha, especially with her medical background. As far as being the only female in the department, that doesn’t bother her one bit, nor does she buy into the common misconception that female firefighters are weak.
“I work my tail off everyday to become the best version of myself and to show my guys that I will not be the weak link,” Samantha says. “We are a team and everyone needs to fully know that no matter what, we can handle whatever may come our way. I am confident that my guys know that I will never quit on them no matter how hard a situation may get. At the same time, I don’t expect special treatment, nor do I receive it. That isn’t something I have ever wanted or expected. A job is a job.”
As a single mother, Samantha says the benefit of her 24-hours on/48-hours off schedule allows quality time at home, as well as the opportunity to enjoy activities such as CrossFit, woodworking and raising chickens.
Although the job of a firefighter has highs and lows, Samantha wouldn’t change anything about the career decision she made two years ago. “The most rewarding thing about being a firefighter is helping those who are most likely having their worst day,” she says. “Some calls don’t always turn out well, but my goal is to never come off of a scene thinking I could’ve done more. The hardest thing is being witness to some of the most devastating moments in life. With the good comes the bad, but I knew that when I signed up.”
Gina Strickland’s dedication as a firefighter and to her community is reflected in how she balances her time by serving various departments throughout the Gulf Coast. Not only is she a full-time firefighter and paramedic with the Combat Readiness Training Center located on Gulfport’s Air National Guard Base, she also works part-time for the Pass Christian Fire Department and volunteers at Harrison County Fire Service.
Gina began her career nine years ago while she was attending EMT school and a group of firefighters inspired her to do some research about joining the field. The more Gina found out about it, the more intrigued she was, and before long, firefighting became a part of her destiny.
“Really, the career chooses you,” she says. “If you are destined to do it you can not deny it. Anyone that has the desire and the undeniable drive to become a part of this should follow their heart. It takes a lot of work and discipline. The training and education that you must undergo just to be in the fire service and EMS is phenomenal and ongoing.”
Prior to joining CRTC in 2015, Gina worked for the Bay St. Fire Louis Department. Her role at CRTC entails responding to actual or potential air-crash emergencies to prevent or extinguish fires, rescue plane crew and passengers, as well as renders aid to the injured.
Gina is grateful her career allows the opportunity to help people whether it’s a kind word or a compassionate glance in the midst of chaos. She also appreciates valuable lessons learned along the way.
“Someone I admire greatly once said, ‘Slow and steady wins the race,’” she says. “When you remain calm and utilize your training, you can overcome any obstacles in your path. You must stay in shape, train and work as a cohesive group. Every firefighter has strengths and weaknesses. You learn from one another and become one unit — one family helping each other grow.”
Charlene S. Klis ventured into fire service in 1994 when she volunteered as a firefighter with the West Harrison Volunteer Fire Department. As the department’s first female firefighter and the first state certified volunteer firefighter, she quickly grew to love her new found calling and it wasn’t long before Charlene was responding to every call she could possibly make.
In 1998, she officially became a career firefighter and has since worked in various departments throughout the Gulf Coast. In March of last year, Charlene joined the D’Iberville Fire Department where she serves as a fire inspector and investigator.
Charlene comes from a long line of firefighters in her family, which helped inspire the decision to pursue the same career. Her grandfather was a fire chief in the 60s, her uncle was a volunteer, and her cousin, Jerry Dubuisson, is the fire chief of Diamondhead Fire Department.
Charlene acknowledges that one of the most valuable lessons this industry offers is the importance of teamwork.
“It takes a special type of person to be a firefighter, and this is not a career for everyone” she says. “It takes the work of everyone as a team to accomplish the goals and tasks required of us. We are literally one extended family of brothers and sisters!”
Because people play different roles in the fire department, Charlene says diversity in personnel allows for more thought processes and ideas when dealing with problems to enable for a more productive and creative solution. The most common misconception she finds about female firefighters is that they can’t do the job as well as male firefighters.
“Every person regardless of gender has different strengths and weaknesses,” Charlene says. “Sometimes there are multiple ways to accomplish a task. It doesn’t make one way better than the other, just different.”