By Mindy Ragan Wood, Staff Writer – Pint-sized Kara Owens, a tough girl with a soft spot for her community, is one of only three female firefighters in Canadian County where she serves as a volunteer for the Piedmont department.
Her small frame supports about 100 pounds of protective gear and she can suit up in 60 seconds with the rest of the firefighters.
“Lieutenant Owens is a female, but there is absolutely no difference in what she does,” Chief Andy Logan said. “She is required, expected and able to do every single thing a firefighter would do. She has no limitations. Whether she’s inside a building to put out a fire or running command, she performs all the tasks.”
Firefighting is still dominated by a male workforce, a career or volunteer opportunity that women may overlook because of the physical demanding nature of the job. The National Fire Protection Association estimates only 7 percent of the 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S. are female.
The argument whether a woman is strong enough for the task hasn’t stopped women who believe they can respond with the same strength and agility as men. Owens, who weighs little more than the gear she wears into a fire, stays in shape not to win an argument but for safety.
“It’s critical to stay active and be fit not only for your safety but for your fellow firefighters because you never know what you’re going to be called on to do,” she said.
Small departments like Piedmont depend heavily on volunteer firefighters, which has six salaried and 11 volunteers who make up the team. Paid or not, all responders are continuously trained for every aspect of the job.
“You don’t have one set task,” Owens said. “You have to be able to perform every task on every truck we have and we have eight trucks. You have to be able to not only to drive the truck, but pump it, know where everything is on the truck and be able to operate every piece of equipment we have. Unlike Oklahoma City you have one specific task, (here) you may be driving the brush pumper putting a fire out. Something comes up and you may be going in on the hose line on a structure fire. You’re not exempt from anything.”
Being a woman on the job does create some differences, but Owens said there are no gender politics at the fire department.
“Really, I’m one of the guys,” she said. “But yes, I do bring something different. I can be more empathetic. The mom side of me comes out on some of the calls and sometimes on the guys. There are things that I do with a different point of view than the guys and I might approach something a little differently.”
Owens decided to volunteer as a firefighter four years ago when she decided to complete EMT training for re-certification at the department. She is a nationally certified EMT and a certified EMT instructor.
“I was extremely impressed with the people and the camaraderie and it provoked me to inquire about being a volunteer,” she said.
Between at least 12 hours of monthly training and responding to calls, Owens stays busy working with her husband. Darren Owens is an insurance agent who owns a roofing construction company.
As busy as work may keep her, firefighting can be demanding.
“Kara was recently part of a group of salaried and volunteer firefighters who had been up for 32 hours straight,” Logan said. “She’s received the most runs award for the last two years of any volunteer firefighter in the department.”
The award is given to the firefighter who responds to the most calls. All firefighters have a radio and receive notification through their cell phone when a call comes through. It is up to the volunteer to join the crew if they are available, but each volunteer is required to respond to a minimum number of calls per year.
If that wasn’t enough volunteer time, she also assists with community education events like Fire Prevention Week in the schools, and community CPR classes.
Logan said her sacrifice is also her family’s sacrifice.
“Her attendance and her dedication are unmatched. That speaks highly of her family. When you think about the kind of time that she sacrifices away from her family, we’re just as grateful to Darren, Lucas and Riley because they share their mom with us and that helps the entire community,” he said.
Owens said her family fully supports her decision to volunteer with the department.
“My husband and my 16-year-old son always want to know if it’s a grass fire or a structure fire because they do worry about me a little bit. My four-year-old daughter wants to be a firefighter when she grows up. She gets mad because she isn’t allowed to go with me on fire calls. She calls our brush pumper her little engine,” she said.
Her daughter is not the only one considering a career as a firefighter. Despite the low number of women who take up the profession, Owens said she would encourage any young woman to consider the job seriously.
“It’s one of the most rewarding careers you can choose. To be there for someone in the worst moment of their life, to be able to help them in their time of need is a reward in itself,” she said.
Owens said she is proud to work alongside a great crew and a chief who leads by example.
“We’re all a team here, on a level playing field. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I’d take these guys up against any department. They’re well trained and they know their stuff. We have a great chief. When you have an outstanding leader who will go above and beyond for his crew day in and day out, it makes you want to step up and follow his path.”