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New firefighters a first in the area

These women are climbing the ladder of success in their field — in this case, the ladder just happens to lead up to a burning building.

For the first time, women firefighters have been hired in both Detroit Lakes and Frazee.

After asking for applicants to fill six openings at the Detroit Lakes Fire Department, the crew will soon be at full force again.

Fire Chief Scott Flynn said two have been hired and two more will be soon.

“We take them in segments,” he said, staggering the new firefighters so there aren’t six untrained people at one scene.

After being hired, the new firefighters have a probationary year filled with lots of training.

The two newest hires are Chad Lofgren and Shanda Smith, the first woman to be hired as a firefighter in Detroit Lakes.

Flynn said there have been other female applicants in the past, but for various reasons, they never made it to the hiring stage.

“She is the first one who took the initiative to do all the stuff,” he said.

That stuff includes the civil service test, oral interview, physical and testing before they are hired. For the agility test, the firefighter applicants are tested on heights, claustrophobia and balance to name a few.

All applicants, male or female, are given the same testing and judged on equal merit.

Once accepted into the department, the new firefighters then attend schooling through M State, Moorhead.

The local crews also hold their own weekly training at the fire stations.

“We get them to scenes so we can train them, too,” Flynn said.

Smith said volunteering as a firefighter is something she has thought about doing for a long time, but wanted to wait until her children were old enough to care for themselves if she was paged.

“I think it’s a great community service,” Smith said of the volunteer fire department. “I enjoy being able to help out.”

Smith and Lofgren started with the Detroit Lakes Fire Department April 2.

“The first night, I was very nervous,” Smith said of being the only woman on the crew, “but it’s been wonderful. They’ve been great mentors, and everybody so far has been awesome and teaching me.”

Lofgren was a firefighter in Audubon for several years, so he won’t have to go through the schooling, but Smith is signed up to start this fall. The way it usually works, Flynn said, is new firefighters in the area go to the schooling together, and the instructor comes to a center location, usually Detroit Lakes.

Two more candidates have been tested and will likely start training soon, going through the college training with Smith. Flynn said it’s nice to group new firefighters together for schooling because they can lean on each other.

“You get a real bond when you go through training and then come on together,” Flynn said.

“I’m pretty excited to get a whole new family of people,” Smith said. “You definitely have to have a trust with your partner and who you’re on the scene with.”

Flynn said it’s no big deal that Smith will be the only female in the crew and training and protocol will be “same as always.”

Frazee Fire Chief Regi Ueke agrees with that, saying it’s no big deal that they’ve hired their first woman as well.

Frazee filled four positions on its fire department this year. Starting Monday were Anthony Bachmann, Chris Burton, Travis Gray and Shawna King.

Ueke said the testing for firefighters is done on a percentage basis, as it is in Detroit Lakes as well, so while Frazee has had other women apply in the past, it’s based on how well they do when it comes to testing time.

“In the past, we’ve had females doing the test, and we score them equally and go by percentages,” Ueke said.

King’s brother is already serving on the fire department, and Ueke said Shawna is already like one of the guys, so it won’t be any different having a female on the department.

And while the men don’t plan to treat the females any differently, the women don’t expect it either.

“I’m just super excited to get in there, and I’m hoping that everybody who’s had that little ‘oh, my gosh, a woman on the department,’ just to be able to show that we’re capable, too,” Smith said.

Both Flynn and Ueke said their departments are sitting pretty good for new hires for quite a while now.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.