‘A life and death job’: Carlisle gains a female firefighter

Eight women graduate from firefighting program

Carlisle firefighter/EMT Bonnie Evans of Carlisle, who was one of a record-breaking number of women in her graduating class at Massachusetts Firefighting Academy’s Call/Volunteer Firefighter Training Program, shows the pager that alerts her to calls. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
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CARLISLE — Her boots and uniform are in the car. Her keys are nearby. When Bonnie Evans’ pager sounds, she has under four minutes to get to the fire station.

“It’s just a unique feeling,” she said. “This is where I’m happiest.”

The mother, marketing consultant, business developer and EMT was one of eight women to graduate the Massachusetts Fire Academy’s Call/Volunteer Recruit Firefighter Training Class this fall.

A total of 36 recruits attended the training program on nights and weekends to learn basic firefighting skills, from fire attack operations to search and rescue to vehicle extrication. Only once, in 2017, has a graduating class contained this many women.

Carlisle firefighter/EMT Bonnie Evans of Carlisle, who was one of a record-breaking number of women in her graduating class at Massachusetts Firefighting Academy’s Call/Volunteer Firefighter Training Program, with fellow call firefighter Kevin Brown, also of Carlisle. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

Evans now doubles as an EMT and one of two female call firefighters at the Carlisle Fire Department. The department employs more than 35 firefighters and EMTs.

“I’d like to nurture other women coming into this department,” she said. According to a 2017 National Fire Protection Association study, about 7% of firefighters are female.

“I think women fulfill unique roles,” Evans said. She said she has encountered situations — for example, if a woman falls and needs to be lifted — in which community members feel more comfortable receiving help from a female firefighter.

Lowell Fire Chief Jeffrey Winward said diversity is important in any fire department. Over 25 years ago, only men served as Lowell firefighters, according to Winward. Now, six out of 213 firefighters at the department are women.

“Times have changed, and we’ve got a very diverse city, and we’ve got a very diverse department,” Winward said. “The women that we do have do a great job.”

Winward encourages community members of all backgrounds to apply for firefighter positions, including women and those who speak different languages.

“It’s a fulfilling thing to be there when someone in your community needs help,” Evans said.

The Carlisle resident rises at 5 a.m. to care for her 10-month old son before her company is on call. She typically works on the emergency response team from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., and juggles two other jobs. After a long day, she studies into the night while her son is asleep.

One day, her son tripped and fell just as she received a call from dispatch. “You have to leave your crying baby to go be with another crying baby,” she said. It’s just one of the challenges she faces as a mother and firefighter.

“I have to rise to meet those challenges, but I haven’t found that I couldn’t,” she said.

In the academy, Evans and the other female recruits regularly exercised together to stay in shape. She recalls one particular training, during which she and two other women lifted a hose line gushing with strong water pressure.

“There was sort of a moment of: Are we going to be able to do this?” she said. They did.

“I think women tend to work super hard to sort of prove ourselves,” Evans said. “This is a life and death job at times, and we take it really seriously.”

Firefighter Kevin Brown,of Carlisle, said Evans has been “a great addition to our department.” He added that she is an inspiration for other women in the field.

“Hopefully, this (women becoming firefighters) is a trend we will see continue,” retired Chelmsford Fire Chief Jack Parow said.

“I feel the more diverse our ranks, the stronger the fire service will be as we continue to adapt to the ever-changing environment we operate in,” said Parow, current secretary of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts.

Growing up in nearby Concord, Evans dreamed of becoming a physician. She started at the Carlisle Fire Department as an EMT, then became fascinated with firefighting.

The job is much more than “breaking down doors and going into burning buildings,” she explained. Firefighters respond to medical calls, measure gas levels, manage water supply, and much more. Before long, it became a passion.

“You have to be more prepared everyday for whatever,” she said.

Evans hopes to encourage other women to join local fire forces. “Don’t let anything stop you… As long as you’re working hard, there’s nothing you can’t do,” she said.