Suzanne La Follette
Fire Fighter, Austin Texas
Adrenaline. Anything that causes adrenaline. I look at what I’m most afraid of, then go after it. I want something exciting.
I graduated with a BA in English. I was waiting tables at 26 years old and I wanted something more in life. Not knowing what to do, I saw the Austin Fire Department was hiring. The next morning I ran three miles to start getting into shape. I needed to be able to believe I could do it. I was told that being a woman fire fighter was not possible – it was like becoming a rock star – impossible.
Women can successfully do all of the tests men can do but they use their bodies differently to achieve the end result. Women have strong legs and strong lower bodies. Unlike men who have considerable strength in their upper body. Women are also very energy efficient. Women have an advantage just like men have one. The relative advantage lies in how each gender adapts and uses the strengths of their physical build.
There are 55 women in the Austin Fire Department. There are about 1100 fire fighters in total. My 2007 graduating class had 13 women in it – the biggest class of females at the time.
It’s an ongoing process. In the Fire Academy I could never slack off. I trained very hard. I wanted to make myself valuable. Women and men bring different strengths that deserve respect. A man may be able to lift 300 lbs., but a smaller firefighter can navigate their way through tunnels better. It’s all about knowing what you can bring to the table for the benefit of the crew.
Most of the fear that I feel isn’t fear of death or injury, but fearing there will be a lacking in my performance. I think, what is the best way to approach the situation, and what steps do I need to take to successfully pull my weight within the crew? This psychological weight can be heavier for a woman because mistakes can hypothetically be traced back to a female and wrongly attributed to her gender. There are risks and challenges, but I have developed some confidence. But that confidence does not prohibit me from second guessing myself.
My first big house fire. I was standing on the nozzle putting out the fire. At the time I was still on my 6 month probation period. I felt the pressure of the situation and I knew that I was the one putting out the flames. It was the moment I had been waiting for – the purpose – helping people. I felt a great adrenaline dump. We show up to a fire and when we leave it’s out. That’s gratifying work.
There have been no deaths in the line of duty in the Austin Fire Department since the 1970’s. But we are very well trained; from EMT training to fire training to being hearty swimmers.
The failure in not thinking and acting swiftly; you must always be thinking and capable of making a critical shift both intellectually and physically.
Practice. Practice can make-up for lack of experience. And learn to listen. You need to train your brain to think – which way can I do it. Try to get accepted into the fire department at least three times. And then, if you don’t get in try something different. But it’s a life lesson: how can you be anything if you don’t try?
Yes, men take physical strength for granted. Women have to work very hard to achieve the level of physical strength required for fire fighting.
I do yoga, lift weights and run (3 and 5 miles alternating). I also do P90X Videos, Crossfit, ride my bicycle, swim, play tennis whatever keeps me moving and motivated.
The Giving Tree. It’s about a child who takes everything from the tree. It’s a metaphor for the parent-child relationship.
My older sister and my Mom. My Mom raised me to believe I could do anything and nothing could stop me. She raised five teens alone, worked and held it all together. My older sister was 7 years ahead of me and she blazed a trail I respect and admire.
I could do anything I wanted to do. More importantly, I saw her do it herself, by example.
“Attack your fears and always face them.”