LYMAN – A small rural fire department is breaking gender norms.

Goodwins Mills Fire Department serves the towns of Dayton and Lyman, with populations just under 2,000 and 4,400, respectively.

The fire department is 33 percent female, said Chief Roger Hooper, with 50 percent of the full-time employees women and 100 percent of live-in college students women.

These numbers are significantly higher than national norms. In 2017, about 7 percent of firefighters were women, and about 4 percent of career firefighters were women, the National Fire Protection Agency said.

Not bad for a small-town fire department.

“That didn’t happen by design. It’s just the way it all evolved,” Hooper said.

He believes the dynamic has improved the professionalism of the department.

“It’s not a boy’s club,” he said.

Lt. Nicole Steiner agrees that the culture at the department is a little different at Goodwins Mills than at other fire departments because of the number of women. She said she’s gone to training events in other counties in the state and sat in a classroom of 30 to 40 people with only one other woman.

Firefighter/EMTA Sandy Guillemette said all firefighters at Goodwins Mills are are held to high standards and must pass physical agility tests so they can fight fires, extricate people from cars, respond to medical emergencies and all the other tasks firefighters are expected to perform.

“We are no different than the guys. We are all trained the same,” she said. “It’s a job, not a gender. You can’t tell us apart in gear.”

Guillemette recalls many years ago when her father was a fire chief, and women like her mother and grandmother proudly served the fire department as members of the ladies auxiliary. However, while some might dismiss the auxiliary as just a club, she said its role was an important one.

Times were different, and the man’s job was often seen as protecting his family. When firefighters went into burning buildings they didn’t have the protective gear or equipment they have today, and it took much longer then to put out fires, Guillemette said. Communities rallied in support and women like Guillemette’s mother and grandmother were on hand to provide a much needed beverage or snack.

Firefighter/EMT Nikole St. Germain is a student who lives at the station for free in exchange for work duties at the station while she completes a degree in fire science at Southern Maine Community College. She said firefighters came to her rescue when she was young and got her knee stuck in her crib. Every year afterward, she and her family would bring Christmas cookies to the fire station. St. Germain said she knew at a young age that she wanted to be a firefighter

“I love every second of it,” she said.

Her burgeoning career hasn’t been without challenges. St, Germain recalls she was a teenager living in a different state where she served as a junior firefighter. A firefighter in her hometown tried to scare her from a career in firefighting by pushing her to meet extra high standards. But she persisted and showed the department she had what it took to get the job done.

Firefighter/EMT Lisa Eichel, also a live-in student, said she took a public safety course in high school and knew then that she wanted to become a firefighter.

“There were no other possibilities,” she said.

Eichel worked at a 40-member fire department in Massachusetts that had two active women firefighters.

“I had to continually prove myself,” she said. Eichel said there were firefighters who thought they were being nice by helping her lift heavy equipment or other tasks, however, she needed to be able to do these tasks on her own in order to be a competent firefighter.

“We’re all here doing the same thing,” Eichel said.

Call force Firefighter/EMT Carol Dunham, who works at UNUM full-time, had an interest for many years in being a first responder. She decided to take the plunge when she moved to Lyman about 16 years ago as a way to help others and meet new people.

Over time she has met a lot of people she now calls friends. The fire and rescue department isn’t a boy’s club, but rather, a family, and members of the Goodwins Mills Fire Department are there for each other, whether it be to offer support when a family member dies or to get together and paint the chief’s garage when he is away on deployment.

Per Diem Firefighter/Paramedic Heather Valliere began her career in public safety as a paramedic. She said at first she didn’t want to be a firefighter, but with many fire departments preferring employees who are cross-trained in both fire safety and medical, she decided to go for it and become a firefighter.

Michelle Beaulieu who has worked helping others in mental health services or child care positions had thought about becoming a call firefighter for a long time, but had doubted herself. She said her husband was a driving force.

“I said, ‘I can’t do this,’ and he said ‘Yeah, you can,’” she said.

____________________________________-

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 2:40 p.m. on May 2, 2019, to correct the spelling of Nikole St. Germain.


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: