When Longview Fire Chief Jim Kambeitz’s 8-year-old daughter met firefighter intern Chelsey Miller a few years ago, she was star struck.
“My daughter was like, ‘Dad, girls can be firefighters?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ And she thought Chelsey was the coolest thing she’d ever seen,” Kambeitz said Monday. “That was a positive influence on my daughter that I personally saw.”
Beginning Monday, other local women may have the same experience. Miller was sworn in as the Longview Fire Department’s first full-time female firefighter/EMT. She and Vince Gilberti, also sworn in Monday during the private ceremony, will head to the fire academy in Camas next week.
Gilberti was previously a part-time firefighter with Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue until 2013, when he started working as an electrician with BNSF Railway.
During an interview Monday, Miller said she was aware of the significance of her hiring but said she expects Longview FD to hold her to the same standards as her male counterparts.
“I’m here to prove myself and to prove to everyone that this isn’t just a man’s job. It’s slowly changing in the fire service, and I’m excited to be a part of that change,” she said.
Miller, 24, grew up in Gresham, Ore., but attended Lower Columbia College to play softball. During her two years at LCC she earned an associate’s degree in fire science and started interning with Longview FD.
After earning her degree, Miller worked for Point Blank Distributing and Metro West Ambulance, but she was eager to get back to firefighting and Longview.
“(Firefighting) is something different every day. You show up to work and you don’t know what that day is going to consist of, but you have to be 100% ready every time. And your skills and your training have to always be there because people’s lives rely on that,” she said. “You’re always expected to be excellent.”
When Longview had two openings due to a retirement and the reinstatement of an administrative battalion chief position, Miller jumped at the chance.
During the hiring process, fire departments get a list from a third party testing center that ranks the top eight or so candidates who have indicated they want to work for that department. Miller was on the top of the list and Gilberti was second, Fire Chief Jim Kambeitz said.
She demonstrated a strong work ethic, education background and personal conduct, Kambeitz said.
“Chelsey earned this. She’s not being hired because she’s female,” he said. “We’re really proud of her.”
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While she is at the academy and undergoing training, Miller will earn $57,300 annually. Afterward, she’ll get a raise to $66,000.
Miller said she’s known the other Longview firefighters for a long time and said her personality fits in with the team.
While she doesn’t expect any push back on her hiring from Longview firefighters, Miller said she sometimes encounters people who don’t think women are physically able to perform the job as well as men.
“I don’t let them affect me. I just prove them wrong,” she said. “I see it more of a challenge and it makes me work harder. If someone’s telling me I can’t do something or can’t lift something, I’m going to make sure I lift it, one way or another.”
Battalion Chief Troy Buzalsky, who had Miller on his shift when she was an intern, said she set the record time using the forcible entry prop, which takes skill, speed and strength.
“She’s a very good fit,” he said Monday. “She knows what’s expected of her. You don’t have to tell her what to do. She has good energy and good enthusiasm.”
Kambeitz, who become chief earlier this year but has been with the department for 17 years, said part of the reason it’s taken so long to hire a female firefighter is because he didn’t remember a woman ever making the final cut of top eight candidates.
About 5% of the national firefighting workforce is female, according to Firefighters Data USA.
Having a diverse workforce, however, is desirable because there may be times when a victim is more comfortable with a woman, Kambeitz said.
“(But) we’re not asking her to do anything different than any of our other firefighters,” he said.
There may be one downside, Miller said: Her long brown hair sometimes gets loose while fighting flames and once almost caught on fire. The helmets are too small for her to put her hair in a bun so she may have to practice a new grooming skill.
“I gotta learn how to braid or something,” she said with a laugh.
For now, she’s focused on living out her “dream job” and earning the respect of her colleagues.
“I’m looking forward to being a great firefighter and serving the community,” she said.
The hires come at a time when the department has hired more people than Kambeitz says he can remember happening at one time. Earlier this year, the department hired three new firefighter/EMT as part of a grant, filled a vacancy from a retirement, promoted Jeff Thompson to the reinstated administrative battalion chief, back filled Thompson’s position and hired a fire marshal to fill the position Kambeitz vacated when he was hired as chief.