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Female firefighters answer the call, inspire change

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Vernon R. Walter III
  • 27th Special Operations Wing

According to the National Fire Protection Association, only 10% of all firefighters are women. Female Airmen of the Cannon Fire and Emergency Services are no exception to this statistic, but not only are they capable of breaking barriers, they can redefine what is normal.

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Amanda Rusch, 27th Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron firefighter, and Tech. Sgt. Kayla Arnett, 27 SOCES station chief, didn’t know what to expect when they told their recruiters that they wanted to be firefighters.

“I hadn’t planned on it at all,” said Arnett. “I went in with a degree in criminal justice, so I intended to join Security Forces and get that experience. Then I saw that fire protection was available, and something about it just called to me.”

Rusch, on the other hand, dove in with no expectations.

“After scoring high on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, I had a really wide range of options,” said Rusch. “All of them seemed so dull, the thought of them put me to sleep. Then I saw fire protection, and thought it would be something more my speed. I didn’t have any experience with it before, but after joining, I don’t regret it.”

By the time Rusch was joining the Air Force, Arnett was already well into her time in service.

Arnett started her career nine years ago at technical training school as one of only four females out of approximately 300 students. She and the other females usually found themselves in separate classes due to different training phases, giving Arnett a sense of isolation.

“Right off the bat, I’m comparing how I complete tasks to the guys around me,” Arnett said. “That was the first experience I got of this disparity. Luckily, there were women ahead of me that inspired me. They cheered for me and showed me it can be done.”

While Rusch had similar issues, she was able to find solace in the people around her at Cannon.

“For me, it was so hard at first. I was the only female on my shift when I showed up, so it led to some awkwardness,” Rusch said. “The guys would go from being themselves and goofing around to kind of closing up and acting different, all because I was around. It was terrible to feel like the source of all that. Now, I’m treated like an equal, like family. Sadly, that kind of discrimination still happens [across the Air Force]. We’re strong, we get over it, but it shouldn’t be happening.”

After a few years as a firefighter at Shaw AFB, South Carolina, Arnett became an Airman Leadership School instructor, where she saw the Air Force in a whole new light.

“Three years as an ALS instructor, and I can say that it doesn’t matter the career field, there are difficulties for females everywhere, ” Arnett said. “I had people from medical clinics to flightlines struggling with these problems. So now, as a station chief, we try to make sure those issues aren’t issues for us. As firefighters, we have to be able to trust each other, rely on each other. We can’t have that if other people feel uncomfortable.”

Having reliable leaders that treat women and men with equal respect gives an environment that feels safer and more trusting than before, Rusch said.

“There have definitely been improvements,” Rusch said. “People will advocate for me or empower me. If I bring something to Sgt. Arnett or my other leadership, I know they will handle it. It’s nice knowing I have these people I can go to and know that they have my back.”

Looking back on her time as both a leader and instructor, Arnett understands that things are not perfect, but they are getting better.

“In general, people feel like they have a voice now,” Arnett said. “There are things like social media and new avenues of reporting and support. There’s a better initiative than nine years ago. We have groups that help highlight diversity and things like the lactation rooms that affect the Air Force as a whole. I never knew about that stuff when I was coming up, but now there are all these changes to help make it better for everyone.”

Chief Master Sgt. Therman Watkins, 27 SOCES Fire Chief, joined the Air Force 25 years ago in 1997. He notes that within that time, the perception of women in fire protection has changed.

“I recall being told early in my career that females could not be good firefighters because they lacked the physical strength and sound judgment to meet the demands of the job,” said Watkins. “This type of bias cannot be further from the truth. Currently, the Fire Service has been aggressively addressing the importance of having a diverse enterprise. Not only to expand our number of female firefighters, but to also look into what must change so that we can also keep them within our career field.”

In addition to redefining the old notion of the fireman standard, both Arnett and Rusch exceed Air Force standards.

“Tech Sgt. Arnett is currently completing a local assistant chief certification process, and we already know she is more than capable to serve as the incident commander for any emergency on Cannon,” said Watkins. “Senior Airman Rusch is a leader among her peers, the one that other Airmen seek for advice, and the 27 SOCES recognized her as the 2021 Volunteer of the Year.”

Accomplishments and inspiration by women such as Arnett and Rusch continue to drive changes that improve equality in the Air Force.

“It can really start with you,” Rusch said. “Acting as your own advocate and standing up for yourself is the first big step for both yourself and the people around you.”