The Midlothian Fire Department was first in 1906. It then took 110 years for the department to hire its first female firefighter.
Then a couple of months later, the department hired a second. And, now, that number stands at three.
With this week being the public observance of Fire Prevention Week, it’s important to remember the civil servants who are among the first to respond to a call.
Meet Midlothian firefighters Katie Bean, Samantha McCulloch and Teresa Smith — the women behind the helmet and Midlothian Fire insignia.
When Katie Bean was in high school, she often daydreamed about what life would be like as a firefighter. She said she always knew being a firefighter was something she wanted to do; though she rarely thought of the risks and the dangers that came with the profession.
“I honestly never even thought about it,” Bean said. “I always wanted to do it. I knew it was going to be fun, exciting and every day was going to be different," Bean said. "I couldn’t be sitting at a desk.”
After high school, she got her fire, EMT and paramedic certifications at Navarro College. Upon graduation, she saw a website that had job openings for firefighter positions.
That was when she saw an opportunity with the Midlothian Fire Department and decided to take the next step to pursue her dream.
“I had just got my paramedic in April of 2016, and I think they started their hiring process around August or September,” she recalled.
Part of the application process was a seven-minute obstacle course, which had a zero-tolerance standard of exceeding the time limit. It didn’t matter if it was 30 seconds or one — if you went over, you were disqualified.
“The physical ability test that we had used prior had a very low pass rate for female firefighters,” Fire Chief Dale McCaskill explained. “They knew they were in a fishbowl.”
THE PHYSICAL EXAM
McCaskill explained that, at the beginning of the obstacle course, candidates started with a firefighter coat, a helmet and an air pack equipped to their person. They had to climb up and down a 75-foot aerial latter, advance a charged hose line forward, simulate chopping on a Keiser sled, drag a hose line, carry two items that weighed 30 pounds each, then pick up a 175-pound dummy and pull it 100 feet.
Applicants had to do all of this in seven minutes.
Or at least, they used to.
In 2015, McCaskill explained the department reevaluated what its minimum standards were for physical ability. Instead of completing the test in under seven minutes, applicants had to demonstrate continuous motion between each task.
“If you start slowing down, they’re just going to stop you,” Bean recalled. “If you were struggling too much, they’re just going to stop you and say 'come again next time.'”
Bean wasn’t deterred. She had worked hard to get the opportunity, and she was physically and mentally ready for it despite the challenges.
“I knew what I wanted, so I went after it,” she said. “I didn’t stop.”
Bean was the first female candidate to complete the physical examination and recalled the crew’s reaction to her performance as astounding.
“Whenever I passed the physical, everyone seemed shocked,” she said. “They were like, ‘Hey congratulations. You’re the first female to ever pass this.’ I was like, really? I was shocked.”
McCulloch completed the test shortly after Bean. McCaskill said everyone, including himself, was impressed by the ladies’ performances.
“Both of those candidates finished the test, but they did it in a way that you can tell they were never going to stop,” McCaskill explained. “They were never going to quit.”
After the physical exam, Bean and McCulloch were interviewed by other firefighters, engineers and captains on their communications and interpersonal skills. They also took a polygraph exam and a medical evaluation.
“I point that out to say that I’m not the only one that made the decision on whether we were going to hire female firefighters,” McCaskill explained. “The organization made that decision.”
“As we were coming out of those interviews, that interview panel said regardless of gender, these are the best candidates we have in that process,” McCaskill continued. “That for me is a good way to know whether an organization is ready for that change.”
FIRE DEPARTMENT FAMILY
In Oct. 2016, Bean and McCulloch were brought on as the first female firefighters for the Midlothian Fire Department. The following year, Smith was hired after she went through a similar application process.
Bean said she was elated when she got the call for the job offer.
“I was ecstatic. Overjoyed. Blessed,” she recalled. “It was everything. I’m pretty sure I screamed into my chief’s ear over the phone.”
McCaskill expressed that there was some slight apprehension with bringing the women on board. After all, they were entering into a heavily male-dominated environment at the fire station. But the department took the ladies in like any other firefighter and quickly accepted them into the family.
“Since we hired Samantha, Teresa and Katie, the people within our organization have kind of rallied around them and become very protective of them,” he said. “To us, it’s not unique. They’re just a part of our family.”
“My crew is awesome,” Bean expressed. “They’ve never treated me any differently. They’ve always been encouraging. If we’re in training and I’m struggling with something, my crew is right there beside me. It doesn’t matter if I fail or someone else fails. At the end of the day, we all gotta work together as a team to get ourselves out of whatever situation we get ourselves into.”
McCaskill said his most prominent point of pride is not that they’re female firefighters, but that they meet the high standards the department sets for itself.
“We didn’t go out necessarily looking to hire three female firefighters,” McCaskill said. “We went out looking for the best candidates. Samantha, Teresa and Katie were considered to be the best candidates.”
David Dunn, @DavidDunnInTX