She's the one: A spotlight on the woman who fights fires in Sumter County

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 4/25/19

One call still stands out from back when Firefighter Gauthier (their uniforms designate them by last name) was newer to the Sumter Fire Department.

Gauthier did not grow up wanting to be a firefighter. After working as a veterinary technician for …

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She's the one: A spotlight on the woman who fights fires in Sumter County

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One call still stands out from back when Firefighter Gauthier (their uniforms designate them by last name) was newer to the Sumter Fire Department.

Gauthier did not grow up wanting to be a firefighter. After working as a veterinary technician for five years and wanting something more and going to nursing school and getting bored by "the science of it," the endless education that came with firefighting - and the variety of niches and topics, from Hazmat to bomb training to FEMA to water rescues, rope rescues, trench rescues - was appealing.

"Somebody in Columbia suggested the fire department, and I was like, 'No way. Not doing that.' Then, I went home and read up on it, and you'll never ever take all the classes you can take. There's so many classes; it keeps you interested in the job," the New Zion native but Sumterite since fourth grade said.

There are a lot of roles a member of a fire department can play. There are EMT first responders. Those roles are not certified firefighters. There are inspectors to enforce codes, investigators who handle arson cases, prevention specialists who lead education and community outreach. Those roles are all considered certified career firefighters, but certified suppression firefighters are the ones on the truck. The ones who run into burning buildings.

There are women in all those roles in Sumter. Heather Gauthier is the only female firefighter on suppression.

One call still stands out to her from back when she was newer to the department.

She didn't grow up wanting to be a firefighter. She even scoffed at the idea at first.

"We had a fire one night, and we had somebody that was hurt," she said, her blond hair in a high pony tail tied loose enough so it could still be pushed down under a helmet. "When we got off the truck, I saw one of our guys with that person running because EMS had not gotten there yet, and he was running to meet them in the road. I thought, 'Wow.' I'll always remember that. When I got off the truck, I was right there, and he was just running with that person. And I was like, 'God, he's awesome.'"

'It's important to do it right'

It took someone pointing out to Gauthier that she is only the third female who has been on suppression in Sumter for her to realize. Compared to Clarendon County, where Chief Frances Richbourg made her way up the ranks to become the county's first head of the department after being the only woman on the arson control team at the State Fire Marshal's Office, it stands out when Gauthier picks up a hose in training that's 12-fold longer than her and marches into a crumbling structure.

Richbourg, who has a handful of female firefighters on her staff, said she thinks women are encouraged to join the Clarendon department because she is proof a woman has been successful all the way to the top. Not that they're discouraged in Sumter. It's just not as common. Her gender is not something that's talked about openly.

"I've had people say later that they thought one way about me before, but then they saw me do my job," the Summerton native and resident said. "But they've never said anything until after they saw what I could do."

It's not about male or female, she said. It's about whether you can do your job. Her mentors and bosses in Clarendon - all men - always knew that.

Gauthier knows that.

Being a female and going into the fire service is different than a female going into any other historically male-dominated profession, she said. It's not like engineering. That's hard, and females are in the minority. The differences are the lives depending on intense manual labor being correctly and efficiently executed.

"If you're getting fussed at and corrected and corrected and corrected, it's not because you're a girl. It's because you're not doing it right," Gauthier said. "And it's important to do it right because everybody wants to go home to their family."

That difference has not meant for Gauthier a difference in treatment because of her gender. She's treated the same. Do your job.

"You have to have a backbone to be able to take criticism and then be able to be willing to work to fix it. That's not such a big deal here because everybody is going to make sure you fix it."

When we met up with Gauthier at the department's training grounds for an interview, they were learning a new way to fold the truck's hose and pull it up to a structure. The narration of instructions, once Gauthier rejoined the group after our chat, came rapid-fire.

"He's gonna put it on his shoulder. The nozzle is going to be the last one. Hang onto the nozzle. Grab the center stack on here, which is going to be the yellow line," Jordan Duggan explained to her.

"Uh huh."

"So, you're gonna grab the red and yellow, and throw it off, walk to the front door and flick your nozzle."

Just like the endless array of classes a firefighter can take, their training is constant and ever-evolving. After every fire, every car wreck, they talk. Here's what you did right. Here's what went wrong. Here's something to try next time.

Male vs. female? Firefighter. Bottom line.

Gauthier said she has not felt unwelcome or uncomfortable in the two years she has been with the department. She knows other departments, other groups, other businesses have "problems" but that "everyone here is good. They've treated me like everybody else."

She got water dumped on her head. She found her bed in the shower. They've "played all the tricks they played with everybody else."

"Gosh, I remember one night - at the old headquarters, your bed could fit down the pole. The whole thing. And, I went to get to bed and nothing was there, and I'm like, what? And they kept throwing it down the hole, so every time I'd go up and bring a piece up in the stairwell, they'd throw it back down there," she said. "They did not treat me any different. They might have been a little easier. Maybe a little bit. I didn't get the flour."

You have to be able to take a joke. Banter is almost as stereotypical of firefighters as them being men. And, Gauthier said, you have to be able to get people back.

"It makes it fun. When you're stuck 24 hours with these people, you've got to get along. You've got to take a joke. It makes you closer when you're on scene because you get along better," she said.

Back at training, we finish the interview. All that talk about male, female, was it weird, was it not weird, is it different? It almost got weird talking about it so much.

"It was probably more uncomfortable for everybody else," she said about joining the fire service. "The only thing I noticed was everybody who didn't know my name, they just called me Girl. But, I knew who they were talking to."

Through the training, the hose pulling, pulling, pulling, through the classes, the mistakes, more training, through the soaked suits in finger-numbing cold and sticky Southern summers, through the family meals at the station, the fender benders, medical calls, tragedies and even more training, Gauthier gets the potential every time she interacts with someone at a call to be the one who stands out in someone else's memory.

"We had a fire out in Mayesville. There was this woman. Everything was under control, but she couldn't go in the house. There was no way," she said.

The woman was upset about a doll she had bought for her granddaughter.

"So, I went in and found it. Oddly enough, when I opened the box, there was nothing wrong with it. The whole house was burnt. It was just in its little white dress. And that lady was so happy. It was all I had to go was just do on inside and get something for her."

Not all she had to do. She did help put the fire out.

"And she stands out to me," Gauthier said, pausing, remembering, "because she cried and cried."