First Lady of Fire

When Rachel Pederson offhandedly asked Hillsboro Fire Chief Ben Steketee last spring if girls could be firefighters, too, she had no idea she’d eventually become First Lady of the Hillsboro Volunteer Fire Department.

The spur-of-the-moment question came during a routine ambulance standby on a night run to put out a hay-bale fire.

Pederson, at the time starting her second year as an emergency medical technician with Hillsboro’s emergency medical services, found herself fascinated with the firefighters’ work as she watched from the sidelines.

Eventually, she wandered over to Steketee and struck up a conversation.

“I passingly made the comment, ‘So, can girls do this?'” Pederson said. “And he was like, ‘Yeah! Start coming to meetings.’

“And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea. I should do that.’ And I promptly forgot about it.”

The night happened to be during Pederson’s last semester at Tabor College, so a final round of exams and then a commencement ceremony kept her from pursuing the idea right away.

Then in May, armed with a humanities degree and the knowledge that she’d rather be a nurse and EMT than continue to study communications, English or drama, Pederson settled down in a house on Hillsboro’s Main Street and enrolled in Bethel College’s nursing program.

Her first steps down that career path actually began two autumns ago when Pederson enrolled in a six-month EMT class in Peabody.

“My chemistry teacher in high school had been a paramedic, and I loved her stories,” said Pederson, a graduate of Cimarron High School. “Soon, I started realizing that I really loved emergency and medical work-I just ate it up.

“So I ended up changing my life plan at the end of my junior year of college because of this EMT class,” she continued.

“Now I’m going to Bethel-I have three more semesters left and I will have a (bachelor of science in nursing).”

Pederson’s recently discovered love of emergency medical work relates directly to her newfound interest in firefighting.

“I like the idea of being a fighter, of working against something that’s destroying something,” she said. “Plus, I like using my hands-I’m really looking forward to learning how to work water against something.”

Once summer started, Pederson started going to the department’s twice-monthly drill sessions.

“Drills vary from sitting around talking about what kind of fire engine we want to order to filling an old house full of fake smoke and dragging out people who are in there,” Pederson said.

“So I listened in, I sat and watched and every now and then they’d stick me in a fire suit and run me through stuff.

“Because it’s a volunteer service, it’s pretty informal.”

The fire department did put the matter to a formal vote a few months later once Pederson had attended eight or nine consecutive drill sessions.

“(Steketee) had the guys vote on whether or not they wanted me on,” she said. “And they wanted me on, by somewhat of a majority.”

The Hillsboro City Council made it official last week, approving Steketee’s request to add Pederson as the department’s 19th current volunteer-and first-ever woman.

The approval came in time for Pederson to go on her first fire call on Saturday-she rode shotgun in the brush truck as the department responded to a grassfire outside of town.

“You learn a lot more by being there and seeing how they work the fire than you do by running drills,” she said. “You learn a lot about how fire moves and about how you move to stay on this side and that side of it.”

Whether or not she ends up taking formal firefighting classes, Pederson is excited about everything she’s going to learn about on the job-including some new people.

“I’m looking forward to working with a group of people that I wouldn’t otherwise come into contact with,” she said. “I’ve been so isolated in the Tabor bubble that I’m excited to be working with Hillsboroans.”

And she hopes that these guys as well as other area residents will believe her when she says she’s not joining the department to try to prove anything on behalf of the female gender.

“I know some of the men were hesitant because I’m a girl-honestly, I don’t blame them,” she said. “And if I can’t hack it, I don’t want them to let me continue doing it, because it does take a lot of physical strength and I’m not saying that I’m as strong as a man.

“I want to do the job because it’s a job worth doing,” she continued. “And if I can contribute in that way, great.”

Although it may be a while before she can call herself an experienced EMT or firefighter, Pederson, 23, knows from her EMT work that youth and strength are in her favor.

“I’m the young one, and it does have its advantages,” she said with a smile. “You do a lot of lifting and shifting, up and down-and I can take the brunt of some of the physical labor if need be.

“I’m in good shape, I won’t quit and I know how to use my body to do what I can.”

Pederson said she’s not too surprised to be the first woman on the fire department.

“It hasn’t really crossed a lot of women’s minds, I don’t think,” she said. “They’re interested in what they are doing, and what they are doing is great.

“And Hillsboro is not exactly brimming with feminists, so there’s a fairly traditional population that says it’s a man’s job,” she continued.

“There is some stuff, I’ll admit, that I don’t think women can do-there’s no way on earth I’m going to be able to pack out a full-grown man from a burning building, at least not alone.

“But there’s a lot more to firefighting-I can hold hose, I can drive the truck.”

Pederson said she hopes to stay with that department-and with EMT work-at least until she graduates from nursing.

After that, she has a few more things she’d like to try, including flight nursing with Life Team or Eagle Med, she said.

“And I’d like to spend some nights working in the emergency room,” she said. “That sounds so funny, I know, but it gets me jazzed.”

Asked why she wants to do what she’s doing, Pederson quoted the mission statement she wrote for one of her capstone courses at Tabor: “I will strive to heal the broken, serve the forgotten and rebuild the destroyed so that may understand the love of Jesus and rejoice.”

Pederson continued, “I want to fight fire because it destroys. I want to be a nurse because I want to help put people back together.

“I’m not Superman, but that’s kind of what I want to be about-standing between people and bad things.”

And while she knows she has much to learn about how to do that as a firefighter, Pederson is going to apply what she learned from four years helping with nearly every production-either on stage or behind it-in the Tabor drama department.

“You have to do things on the spot, fix things-sew people into costumes, patch up sets that fall down in the middle of the show,” she said. “And if you act like you know what you’re doing, eventually you’ll figure it out.

“It’s about trying and just doing it, because that’s the only way anything will ever happen.”

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