Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Take 2, Seattle Times: Long Form Interview with Ami Brown

Ami (Niiya) Brown, 1991-92 season (I think!)

My friend Ami doesn't just break glass ceilings, she bashes them in with her fire ax.  I have admired her career journey as a long-time friend and came away with even more respect for her after I interviewed her for this piece published in the Seattle Times on July 8th.  I wanted to record and save the entirety of our conversation for posterity, because she is truly a pioneer in her field.  There is so much good stuff in here!

In Ami's own words...

When did you decide you wanted to become a firefighter?
I remember somewhere between sophomore and junior year deciding I wanted to be a firefighter.  I can't pinpoint an exact reason why, but knew it was what I wanted to do.  I knew for sure by junior year that was my goal.  And I know this because I knew my SAT scores wouldn't really matter for what I wanted to do--go to PCC and get my Fire Science Degree.  I remember not finishing a book report for AP English senior year and not really caring cause I knew it didn't matter. I worked at Pizza Hut with a friend my sophomore summer before we were juniors.  She told me her brother had started at PCC in the Fire Science Program and that he too wanted to be a firefighter.  At some point I spoke to him about it.  Erick was so enthusiastic and excited about the program it made it even more exciting for me.  And (my friend) Carla’s brother Darrell was also a firefighter for Portland.  I remember interviewing him our junior year for a personal finance class.   I  enjoyed watching reruns of Emergency.  I think many of us who are firefighters today enjoyed watching Johnny and Roy save the world back then! That show is known for paving the way for Paramedic programs across the nation.  It was a show that was way ahead of it's time for back in the 70s.  I think it probably contributed to my desire to be a firefighter.  

What was the process to get hired? Take me through the timeline. 
I enrolled at PCC (Portland Community College) and joined the Fire Science Program.  You had to apply and pass a physical agility test of sorts and run a certain amount of miles in a certain time.  You just didn't "get in".  After starting classes everyone in the program said in order to get a job you should be a paramedic. I had never considered this, but if that's what everyone else was doing...then that's what I would do too.  I think it was my 2nd term at PCC I enrolled in the EMT Basic program.  That was my only class I took besides my Firefighter skills class every Saturday for 8 hours.  Skills class were every term on the weekend.   

After getting my EMT Basic certificate (which you need to get your paramedic) I was offered a job at AMR. I received a letter in the mail (it was sent to every Basic in the state) saying they were hiring.  Why not?  I was 18 and got hired at AMR as a Basic.  It was the first step to me getting my foot in the door to the world of Fire and EMS.  Through AMR I met Krista, who was a volunteer firefighter with Clackamas.  We formed a friendship, which led to me becoming a volunteer with her which led me to me moving to Beavercreek to volunteer and live with her and Chuck, who was also a volunteer at Clackamas.  This was in ‘97.  I was hired at AMR in ‘95.  I finished PCC in ‘95 I believe.  And I started Paramedic school in ‘96.  Got my medic in the fall of 1997 and this got me on a 911 ambulance in Multnomah County where I gained tons of experience. I worked at AMR until getting hired by Gresham Fire in January of 2000.  I then got hired by Clackamas in March of 2000.  I was the 3rd woman to be hired.  Currently we have 6 women.  We have approximately 180 line personnel.  6 out of 180 is what .03%.  We are way below the national average of women.  I think the average is 3.7%.  I know part of this is due to the fact we typically test and hire paramedics.  This limits our testing to a lot less people-- both men and women.  But I think it is a good standard since our EMS calls are the majority of our responses.  I was the first female Apparatus Operator (I am now 1 of 2, but the other gal is retiring at the end of this year).  And we currently have no female officers.  One other gal tested this last round and she is #3 on the list.  She will get promoted and be the first female lieutenant at Clackamas which is very exciting.  We could actually have a crew of all females at some point!! I would love to have that happen before I retire.  It would be amazing.    

Who were your biggest supporters and detractors?
Obviously my Mom and Dad were my biggest supporters.  Not one time did they tell me no, or that it might be hard or anything!  I should ask my Mom.  They probably didn't know any more than I did that women "weren't supposed" to be firefighters!  They probably just thought, “Okay!  Have fun!”  Also my friends, especially Angie because I was living with her at the time.  I know my friends were so excited for me and always there.  They were the ones who came to my swearing in ceremony!  I would say there have only been a handful of detractors. Unfortunately they are ones that leave an impression on you.  They were all instructors or paid firefighters somewhere when I was a student.  But there were 10X the amount of instructors and paid firefighters that were SO supportive telling me to not give up and basically not listen to the haters!    

Were you ever discouraged?  Did you ever think about quitting?
I think the only time I was ever really discouraged was when I was living with Angie.  I was at PCC still and part of your degree was to spend time at a station on shift for a term.  I was stationed with a Portland area fire crew.  They had an engine and a truck there and were very busy.  Of course I was so excited.  Looking back now I am sure those guys hated it.  Having an outsider come ride with you is stressful and can be uncomfortable.  You must watch everything you say and act appropriately all day!  And the fact to have a girl come ride had to make it even worse.  These are things I was naive to.  I really didn't understand the views of the guys and not only that but "intruding" on their shift every day for those few weeks.  Everyone is always worried about the big H word. Harassment.  It is such a big deal and once it's out there, it's out there.  People have got demoted for "harassing" people so it can be a sticky situation. 

So there were I think 8-9 guys there.  Three of them were very nice and super welcoming.  One was outright not.  I don't know how many shifts I had been there, but I would switch rigs and go on whoever was going on the call.  We got called to a fire and I was so excited.  I can't remember much, but I know I was sitting in the back of the truck with the guy who didn't like me.  We went and got back and it was nothing.  When we got back to the station he yelled at me and told me that I was in his way and when they were going to a fire I needed to stay out of his way.  Like YELLED at me in the bay in front of everyone.  Two of the other guys came up to me later and told me not to mind him, that he was having a bad day or whatever.  So basically that solidified my thought that he was a jerk and out of line.  But what could I do?  I was upset and heartbroken and embarrassed.  I remember going home that day and not wanting to ever go back.  Angie came home after I was and I was in kitchen and she knew something was wrong. I remember standing in the kitchen bawling and hugging her!  This was my first real world experience with someone who I felt was sexist.   And I still remember the three guys that were supportive there.  I have seen two of them since then and they remembered me and were excited I got hired.  Those are the people I remember and when we get a young rider who is new and excited..I remember all of that.  I want to be remembered as a positive influence and someone who got them excited about it.  
I thought they were going to use this photo for the original story,
but they didn't. We're so dang cute…I had to include it! Go Scots!

Did playing high school sports effect your future life and career?  If so, how? If you had it to do all over again would you play sports in high school?

Yes, playing high school sports had a huge impact on my life including my career!  And I would absolutely do it again!  I think, like you, sports in high school were a highlight and I can’t imagine going through high school without them.  One of the things looking back now that I think it taught me was how to get along with others.  You play with people not in your clique.  People you wouldn’t otherwise hang out with -- people in other grades than you, too.  It makes you get to know others and learn differences and be tolerant.  You work with them as a team, you practice, play, travel, win and lose.  

When we recruit women for the department we specifically think of girls who are involved in sports.  Those girls have he traits that make a good firefighter.  Girls who play sports have a drive others don’t.  Part of that is just being in good physical shape.  Athletes typically work hard and train hard to be at their peak.  As a firefighter you have to be ready to work at any time.  Staying in good physical shape is part of this career and I think more difficult for women.  Men naturally have stronger upper bodies.  We have to work at it.  Some guys don’t - they are just built like trucks!  And they can muscle their way through stuff.  We have to be strong and use good techniques.  

We are a team and work hard together to get a job done.  It doesn’t always go as planned, but we work it out together and try to figure out how to improve next time.  Our practices are our drills.  Game time is when the tones go off.  

High school sports taught me it's not all about you.  You may ride the bench if your team wins, but you are still needed and still a part of it.  We have fires where our crew may be on the scene but not get an assignment, but we are ready if needed - kind of like riding the bench!  

What makes you a good firefighter?
I think what makes me a good firefighter is my attitude.  Your attitude can make or break you, no matter how smart or strong you are.  The guys here who I consider “not good” firefighters are the ones with poor attitudes.  They are negative and don’t care about running calls or doing a good job.  The firefighters  who are “good” are positive.  They have pride in themselves, the station, the department.  They are here to run calls. They want to train and get better.  Failure isn’t an option, but when it happens, they fix it.

Another trait is being trustworthy.  You have to trust the guys you are working with to have your back.  What the other firefighters care about -- can she get me out if I go down? We live together as a family.  You have to be able to trust each other with everything!  I know more about some of the guys I work with than some of my close family and friends!

I recently had a captain tell me a story about when I got hired.  We did a drill where we had to carry a firefighter down a ladder from the second story out of a window.  So we would climb up the ladder and guys inside would help put a simulated down firefighter across your arms and you had to get him down.  He was in full turnouts with an air pack.  So I climbed up and stood on a ladder and locked arms on the beams.  And they placed the guy across my arms so he was laying in them and then I had to climb down the ladder.  They put a guy named “Fred” on me.  Fred is probably 6’3” and 200+ lbs with 60 lbs of gear on him.  I  brought him down no problem.  But I guess that day in his mind and others who were there it was like  --- ok, she’s good.  She’s got this.  

After he told me this I remembered years ago another veteran guy had mentioned that same drill.  And the fact he was impressed that I did it.  They had their doubts.  And I don’t blame them!  I know what I’m capable of, but they didn’t.  So that is what they needed to see.  That I could handle them if I had to.  And over the years as people get to know you and see you on calls and at drills, they know.  She’s good.  She’s got this.  But as a woman you have to prove it.

It’s different for men.  We all assume a man should be able to pull another man out of a building or carry a ladder.  And it doesn’t help that I’m small.  I’m strong but I’m not exactly a big burly Mazama Mama.  I very often get from the public (usually older people), “How are you going to pick me up?”  Or “I hope they send someone bigger than you.”  “Do you do all the cooking?”  If I answer the phone at the station I get, “Can I talk to one of the firemen?”  You have to be able to laugh at all that stuff.

What do you bring to your job as a woman?
This is tricky!  As women, we don’t want to be singled out.  We want to be recognized for being a firefighter.  That is probably the worst thing for us is to be singled out in a way that seems like we are doing a different job because we are female.  

One thing that is helpful but not necessary is on medical calls when there can be a sensitive female issue including pregnancy or abuse.  That same older generation that believes the women are cooking and cleaning and answering phones at the station also seem to sometimes respond better to me than my coworkers.  

We started doing 12-lead EKGs a couple of years ago and for women it requires them to take off their bras.  At first I was mad all the guys wanted me to do it, but then I realized, they are right.  Why wouldn’t I offer to do it?  Why make an 80 year old lady take off her bra and open her shirt to some young guy when I’m standing right there.  I honestly don’t mind anymore and jump at the chance because I think most (of the patients) appreciate it and I KNOW all of the guys absolutely appreciate it.  

I am a Peer Supporter for the department.  There are several of us who went through the training to help our own through tough times.  Because of this and I think the fact that I’m a woman and have a more sensitive side (at least more than the guys I work with), I am the one who talks to family when someone has died.  I think I have empathy and even moreso since my dad died to know what they are going through.  If we are there, it was probably unexpected.  Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely guys here who are great if not better at being the consoler, but on my crew it usually falls to me.  And I like that.  It’s like I’m taking care of my guys and taking care of the family.  

Another thing I think I bring to the department is just the awareness factor of women in the fire service.  As I said earlier I get comments all of the time about it.  And I take that as a positive thing because it's bringing an awareness to people that it isn't just men doing it anymore.  I have been to several schools where the teacher says, "Did you know women could be firefighters?"  And recently I have been hearing more yeses than I used to!  it used to be all nos!  I have even had little girls tell me they want to be a firefighter when they grow up and I think that is the coolest thing.  I hope they remember me and can someday tell a story about how a woman firefighter came to their school when they were little and it made an impression!   As much as we don't want to be singled out as women firefighters, we are all proud.  I am proud to be a firefighter and it just so happens I am a woman. :)