In thousands of small towns across Pennsylvania, the local volunteer fire company is often a staple of the community. Volunteers are counted on to put out fires and ensure the safety of residents while putting themselves in harm’s way.
Penn State Altoona junior Jamie White practically grew up at her hometown fire company, Mount Union Company 7, in Mount Union, Pennsylvania. “My brother started volunteering there when he was 14. It was like a little family, and I always wanted to go and hang out at the hall, too. He would talk about how much he loved it and the things he got to do.” White found herself wanting to be a part of that, so when she was 14 she joined, as well. For her first four years with the company, she received training and worked traffic control for vehicle accidents and structure fires. At 18, she was allowed to begin fighting fires exteriorly and after a year probation period, was able to work a fire from inside a structure.
White was the first and is currently the only Firefighter II, male or female, at Mount Union Company 7. The title comes from the National Fire Protection Association and means she has met all of the requirements put forth by the NFPA to be certified as a Firefighter I and II, including over 244 hours of training hours, HazMat classes, two 100-question exams, and two eight-hour physical tests.
“Sometimes it's great to be a female firefighter, but sometimes it's frustrating. A lot of people still think firefighters can only be male. Even some females put themselves down and think they don't have the strength for it. There are times when I'm carrying something heavy and the men will say, ‘oh, honey, I got it.’ And I say, ‘no, I’ve got it. I'm perfectly capable of doing this.’”
As frustrating as it can be, White is proud to be a woman in the company. She garners satisfaction from being able to keep up with the “guys,” even if it is in unconventional ways. “I'm not as strong as some of the men I fight fires with. I might not be able to throw a grown man over my shoulders and carry him out of a burning building, but I'm good with knots. I can tie a certain knot in webbing and throw it over my shoulders to drag him out.” White enjoys being able to adapt and figuring out how to solve problems.
White also enjoys the excitement and stimulation that goes along with being a firefighter. “I love everything about firefighting. It's so unlike any other hobby. You're making an impact on somebody's life whether you're getting their cat out of a tree or putting out a blaze. You never know what you’re getting into when a call comes—it’s all a big adrenaline rush.”
Of course, there is a certain amount of fear, as well, but that fear is important. White was taught that if there comes a time when she’s not afraid of fire, she needs to take some time away from it. She must always remember that fire is much bigger and more powerful than a person. Even knowing that, White says firefighters just have to jump in feet first. “It’s the only way to do it because you’re working against time. Sure, I have fear and these ‘what-if’ thoughts running through the back of my mind, but no matter how afraid I am, I have to be aware of the bigger picture. I know that this is someone’s home that’s burning or that there are people trapped, and I just have to quiet those thoughts and focus on what matters most in those moments.”
White also relies heavily on instinct. She remembers a particularly close call at a fire in Petersburg, Pennsylvania, last winter. She was on the ladder truck with her lieutenant working a fully engulfed house fire when the chief radioed up asking if the pair wanted to head inside and work it. Although the lieutenant tested for a floor with a long pole and felt one, White was dubious and said they should remain outside. “It drove me nuts to do that because it's driven into your head that you fight a fire from the inside, but less than thirty seconds later, the second floor collapsed. It’s insane to think I could have been in there when that happened had I made a different choice.”
White realizes that not everyone understands the desire and drive to be a volunteer firefighter. Her friends are often astounded at the danger she puts herself in and how she will drop whatever she is doing to go on a call. But it’s become the norm for her. “If I’m home and we are in the middle of a meal and my pager goes off, I'm going. We could be in the middle of Christmas dinner, and I would leave. A call takes priority for me. I left a wedding once because there was a car accident and entrapment. And I wasn’t thinking, ‘I'm missing this person's wedding,’ I was thinking, ‘there are people stuck in that car. They're terrified and they need someone.’”
When she was 16, White’s emergency medical services chief from Mount Union encouraged her to sign up for EMT classes. As someone who thought she wouldn’t be able to deal with blood, vomit, or other bodily injuries, White was reluctant, but with some gentle prodding, she completed the six-month course—and found she absolutely loved it. “I really had no idea what major I wanted to pursue in college. As a firefighter, if we were working a car wreck, I wanted no part of the medical side of things. But after I became certified, the more I ran on the ambulance with Mount Union, the more I realized that this is what I want to do. So now I’m a nursing major. At first, I was thinking of becoming a flight paramedic or flight nurse. Then I wanted to be an RN, and now I'm leaning toward being a traveling trauma nurse.”
White has found herself connecting with the human side of emergency medical services. She says as much as she loves to use the Jaws of Life and be part of a rescue, she would rather be the person who offers emotional support to a victim. Last summer, White did just that at the scene of a three-vehicle accident with entrapment. “There was a mom stuck inside of her car, so I was the one talking her through it, explaining everything that was happening as she was freed from the car, keeping her calm. I think that's more rewarding than being the person using the jaws. In that moment, you're like their saving grace.”
While in college, White can only run with Mount Union Company 7 when she’s home on weekends, but she does have her application in with Logan Township Fire Department, and once approved, can begin to go on calls with that company. “It’s a big commitment, for sure. But I love it, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”