Blazing a trail: Moore County’s female firefighters

Being a firefighter is not an easy job. It takes a lot of hard work, endless training hours, strenuous physical activity, high-stress load, and it can be dangerous. It’s certainly a career that not many women choose as less than 10% of career firefighters across the country are female, according to the National Fire Protection Association in 2020.

Moore County has a small but growing number of female firefighters. They come from a variety of backgrounds and ages, but they all are devoted to the profession, highly skilled, and proudly serving the citizens of Moore County.

Sandhills Sentinel reached out to a few of the female firefighters in Moore County and asked them to share their stories.

Carol Dowd is a firefighter with Southern Pines Fire & Rescue. Dowd has certificates in general technology, emergency medical training (EMT), CPR, and hazardous materials (HAZMAT), and an associate degree in education.

Dowd is a lifetime firefighter who now volunteers and said her husband, Martin Dowd, the department’s assistant chief, and other leaders are her inspiration for continuing.

When Dowd was breaking ground 52 years ago in the field, she said her first challenge was her suit and boots. 

A firefighter’s turnout gear is heat and flame resistant, with multilayered pants and a jacket, weighing a hefty 11 pounds. With boots, helmet, gloves, and face mask, the weight is about 45 pounds. This does not include a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which can add up to 20 more pounds. Water saturating the suits during a fire adds to the weight.

“It’s hard on men, too. But you aren’t out there alone. It’s a ‘we’ job,” Dowd said.

Kaylee Jones and Katie Tolla attended Sandhills Community College’s fire academy and went straight to work out of school. But before they were employees, they were volunteers for at least a year.

Savannah Carroll has been a volunteer in Southern Pines for three years. She said she was inspired to help others after experiencing a home fire as a youngster, and because she grew up in Oregon where wildfires are common.

Carroll is certified as an EMT, for HAZMAT, and has certifications for driving emergency vehicles and as a firefighter.

Carroll said a charged fire hose feels like it will jump out of your hands, and it takes strength.

To meet the job demands, they work out. During a shift, a one-hour workout in the gym is required of all firefighters. Tolla also does CrossFit.

“I eat a ton, go to the gym every day, and I’m still not as strong as I want to be,” Tolla said. “I find different ways to work smarter.”

Tolla has a bachelor’s degree in equine studies, certifications as a firefighter, for HAZMAT, EMT and technical rescue.

Jones has a master’s degree in emergency management and business administration, a bachelor’s degree in trust and wealth management and certifications for firefighter, EMT, HAZMAT, emergency vehicle driver, and technical rescuer.

Haylee Rae Ratliff is a firefighter at Robbins Fire and Rescue. She grew up in Carthage and moved to Robbins four years ago.

Blazing a trail: Moore County female firefighters

Haylee Rae Ratliff is a firefighter at Robbins Fire and Rescue. Photo provided.

“Firefighting is all I ever wanted to do,” Ratliff said. “I remember seeing firetrucks going down the road as a kid, and I would always tell Grandma that was going to be me one day. She passed away in August of 2019, and that made me push myself even harder to be a firefighter. She always told me I can do anything I put my mind to.”

Ratliff has her firefighter 1 and 2 certificates, is working on her EMT, and said that even though she is a little and has been told she is too small, she plans to become an officer.

Pinehurst’s battalion chief is Jennifer Mariann Black who comes from a family of firefighters. She grew up in Eastwood and now lives in Carthage.

Blazing a trail as Moore County’s female firefighters

Pinehurst Fire Department Battalion Chief Jennifer Mariann Black. Photo provided.

“By the time I was old enough, I had already been volunteering for Eastwood for two years and was offered a full-time position with Pinehurst at the age of 18, so I just stayed,” Black said.

Black wants to work in investigation and attends Durham Technical Community College for Fire Protection Technology Associate in Applied Science. She has an extensive list of state and national certifications.

“To say I have not faced any obstacles being a female would be untruthful, however, I have met and overcome each of them,” said Black. “In short, our crews need to know that they can count on us, that we can perform just as anyone else on the team, that we are trustworthy and a valuable member.”

If you are a female considering firefighting, these women, and many others like them, may inspire you to follow in their footsteps. They are blazing the trail for you and future generations to follow. 

If you are interested in a career in firefighting, Sandhills Community College offers training and certification courses. You can also contact your local fire department for more information.

Feature photo: Southern Pines Fire Department Squad 81 firefighters, Kaylee Jones (left), Katie Tolla, Savannah Carroll, and Carol Dowd share how they inspect vehicles and equipment January 30, 2022 at the Pennsylvania Avenue station/Sandhills Sentinel.

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