February 25, 2022
International Women’s Day is a global holiday celebrated annually on March 8 to commemorate the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women. This year’s theme #BreakTheBias celebrates women who are challenging gender stereotypes in their lives and work. Our very own Hannah Brown isn’t just breaking stereotypes in the fire service, she is crushing them; and she is inspiring the next generation of Firewomen along the way.
Hannah didn’t grow up knowing she wanted to be a firefighter. In fact, she didn’t even know she could be in the fire service. She had never met a woman firefighter and had always associated the role with men. It was not until a family friend told her he thought her success as a collegiate water polo player would transition well into a role with the fire department (if there was ever a sport that required physical and mental toughness, it’s water polo). Fast forward four years, Hannah is now a Firefighter/EMT for the Tacoma Fire Department.
It turns out, her friend was right. Hannah is darn good at what she does, but not just for the reasons you’d expect. Sure, Hannah is physically tough as nails. But it is her emotional vulnerability, her empathy, and her ability to express compassion for others that are her true strengths.
In the interview below, Hannah reveals what it is like to be a female in this traditionally male-dominated profession. She shares how she hopes to invoke a change in an industry that has long stigmatized mental health, and how she wants to inspire future generations of Firewomen in the process.
Q: Hannah, what’s the day-in-the-life of a firefighter?
A: My shift-mates and I like to start our day by running the Stadium stairs as the sun comes up. We then grab coffee and head to the station. We check our gear, prep the rigs, and try to get some training in. But really, there is no telling what the day will hold. An “average day” does not exist in fire service. We never run the same types of calls, and there is no predicting when the calls will come in. It’s all part of the fun. It keeps us on our toes.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: I enjoy my crew the most. It makes a big difference to go to work with people you trust. They become family. On the hard days, they make it bearable.
My job is incredibly rewarding because I know I am making a difference. Nobody ever calls 911 when they are having a good day. Typically, someone is having one of the worst days of their life. They call us to solve their problem. Sometimes we are saving someone’s life. And sometimes, we are just sitting with them and listening.
Q: How do you prepare for the mental & physical challenges of being a firefighter?
A: Vie keeps me physically tough. That part comes easy for me because I can control it. I train as hard as I can to prepare my body for the worst.
The mental side is harder. In just the three years I have been doing this job, I have seen things that most people will never see in their lifetime. It is haunting. As a result, you experience emotions that are hard to manage—fear, sadness, shame, even guilt. PTSD and suicide have been huge issues with the fire service.
I deal with these emotions by opening-up and being vulnerable. I go to a counselor, and I talk with my co-workers. Working through these emotions is one of the hardest things I have had to do.
I have a strong passion for mental health awareness in the fire service. In fact, I am part of the Peer Support Team. I go to regular training to learn how to support my colleagues who are struggling. I want to change the perception of the “big bad firefighter” who isn’t supposed to feel emotion. My vision for the fire department is to normalize “it’s okay to not be okay.”
It’s a long 30+ year career; if you don’t keep you mind healthy, it is not sustainable.
Q: Do you encounter gender bias within the department or out in the community?
A: Out in the community, yes. Sometimes when I am working with an all-women crew and we show up to a call that requires helping someone physically, the person questions whether we are fit to assist them. There is still this notion that women are not “strong.” We love to surprise people!
Fortunately, within the Tacoma Fire Department itself, I do not experience the same level of bias. Our department is very progressive and prioritizes diversity in hiring. This is thanks to the trailblazing women who came before me. Fun fact, Tacoma’s former Fire Chief, Eileen Lewis, was the first woman in the United States to lead a large municipal fire department. She normalized women in the fire service. Our department is now 18% women. The national average is only 6%. There are places in the country where there will be one (or no) women in the department. I am lucky to be where I am at and work with women every single day.
The women before me had a much harder path; but they set the standard that women can be incredible firefighters too. For that, I am grateful.
Q: How does being a woman make you a better firefighter?
A: I am a “feeler.” I feel emotions deeply. As a result, I bring a different level of compassion to the job.
When we respond to calls, there are times when it is advantageous to have a female there. Maybe we are dealing with a sexual assault and the victim does not feel comfortable with a male first responder. There could be a young mom. I am closer to her age, and she can relate to me. Children often respond better to a female fire fighter as well.
At the end of the day, sometimes the community just needs a soft place to land. Sometimes, you just need a shoulder to cry on.
I am not the strongest. I am not the fastest. But if I can support people in an emotional way, whether it’s my coworkers or my community, I think that is a noble role to play. If I can give them empathy and love, along with my physicality, then I feel like God put me in the right place.
Q: You share that same compassion as a coach at Vie. We are so lucky.
A: And I am so lucky to have Vie. When I feel like I can’t control my life, my mind, or my emotions after a tough call, I know I can walk through the doors at Vie and it will be familiar.
Vie is home. Vie recharges me and brings me back to life. In this job, it is easy to lose touch with reality and go numb. Vie helps me feel things again. Vie reminds me of exactly who I am.
Q: Your husband Erik is also a firefighter. What is it like being in the same industry as your spouse?
A: It is such a blessing. We both understand the kind of work that we do. If we get a tough call and need help processing it, or if we have had a long shift and need extra sleep—we know how to support each other. We’ve both been there. It’s a beautiful thing. It makes us a stronger couple.
Q: What else should we know about Hannah Brown?
I love dogs.
I love Vie.
I love being in the outdoors with my husband.
I love wine nights with my girls.
And, I love my profession. I thank God every day that he gave me the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives.
When I see a little girl and the mom says, “look, you can be a firefighter just like her,” it makes me so proud. I never imagined I could be a firefighter because I never saw female firefighters. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “I have been assigned this mountain to show others it can be moved.”
If a little girl knows that she can chase this dream—we are making steps in the right direction. We are breaking the bias.
Support Hannah and the Tacoma Fire Department in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) Stair Climb taking place March 13, 2022. Wearing over 60 lbs. of gear, Hannah will climb 69 flights of stairs in Seattle’s Columbia Center, raising funds for blood cancer research and patient services. DONATE HERE