FeatureProfile October 19, 2021

Ladies On Fire

Ketchum Fire Department’s fierce female firefighters

According to the National Fire Protection Agency, only about eight percent of the firefighters in the U.S. in 2018 were female; the organization Women in Fire estimates that in the U.S., around 6,200 women currently work as full-time, career firefighters and officers. Ketchum’s fire department is an exception to other locations where men dominate their force—one-third of the Ketchum Fire Department is female, and of the new applicants for full-time fire positions, three-quarters of them are, as well.

One of the women leading this charge is Ketchum Fire Department captain/paramedic, Tory Frank (Canfield). After six years as a volunteer, Frank became the first full-time female hired 20 years ago, excelling alongside her other female (and male) coworkers in a line of work focused on problem solving, strength, training, commitment, compassion, and the support of this community.

“I love serving our community and helping make people’s bad days better,” Frank said. “Every day is different and interesting; it’s a career of problem solving with little time and often few resources, and I thoroughly enjoy being part of the amazing, dedicated team of emergency responders.”

Firefighting was never on Frank’s career trajectory—though she and her sister often pretended to be superheroes from TV as children—and she originally started her career at the City of Ketchum as a city planner. But after watching firefighters running up to the station adjacent to city hall, sirens blaring and tires peeling out, she was hooked by the action and immediately signed up for the next fire academy to become a volunteer.

The training to become a firefighter is tough, whether you’re female or male. Passing a physical ability test requires stair climbing, hose dragging, equipment carrying, ladder raising, forcible entry, search, rescue—all while wearing heavy gear. It is this kind of activity that may prejudice some people against female firefighters, thinking it too difficult a job for women.

Top row: Lara McLean, Killarney Loufek, Kat Penberthy
Bottom row: Tory Frank (Canfield), Amie Marvel, Hannah Baybutt, Katelyn Berman, Keller Gibson

Colleen Quindlen (not shown), a volunteer firefighter on the Ketchum Fire Department since 2018 and member of the Sun Valley Fire Department and live-in responder at the Greenhorn Fire Station, feels lucky to be in departments with strong men and women who make it a welcoming experience. “I never felt that there was a question on my ability because I’m female. I earned my helmet the exact same way as any male.”

Frank believes having both masculine and feminine qualities on a call can result in better emergency response and patient care. Ultimately, regardless of gender, each firefighter brings his or her own experiences, skills, and abilities to the job.

For Keller Gibson, a Ketchum firefighter/EMT since 2017, it’s also the problem solving of the job that she loves. “No two scenarios are the same; you have to have a level of adaptability with every situation.”

An example of this for Frank was the first day of responding to back-to-back COVID patients during the pandemic was scary—not knowing if the PPE would protect her, if the whole department might get sick, or if she might bring the disease home to her family.

“Every day, we have the potential of having a call that really gets our adrenaline going and tests our skills,” Quindlen said. “That’s why we train so hard and prepare for all situations so that we are able to use our team, our education and our practice to help people out in their worst situations.”

As a rare example of a female-dominated fire department, one might question what has led to Ketchum Fire Department’s appeal to women. “I’d like to think that those of us females who have been full-time in the Valley have helped make it easier and more desirable for other women to join,” Frank said. “But it’s also likely a combination of cultural shifts that occur with education and awareness and early pioneers showing that it is not only possible but also desirable.”

Bill McLaughlin, Fire Chief at Ketchum Fire Department, feels fortunate to have so many women in their department as firefighters and EMTs. “They reflect our community. Many are endurance athletes and are very likely to be the ones carrying someone out from a mountain biking accident,” said McLaughlin. “Others are highly skilled paramedics. Some specialize in rope rescue, and some even specialize in horse and pet rescue. In an industry known for mustaches and macho attitudes, it is wonderful to have the professionalism, care and passion that the women bring to Ketchum Fire Department.”

This article appears in the Fall 2021 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.