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In 1991, Nancy Mulvihill was less than a year into her career as a firefighter, when she responded to a church carnival accident in Midlothian. Among those injured in the ride collapse, she found, was her brother. “The first thing my mom said when I told her I was calling from the hospital was, ‘I told you, you were going to get hurt!’ I had to explain, I was calling about my brother, not me,” Mulvihill said. Like many women from previous generations, Mulvihill’s mother wasn’t comfortable with the idea of her daughter risking her life to save others, or with her doing what was once considered “a man’s job.”
Now a lieutenant and a veteran of 21 years with the Richton Park Fire Department, Mulvihill went on to make her mother proud. In the process, she’s opened doors for other women and brought new approaches to handling the pressures of the job. But it wasn’t easy. “In the 1990s, if you showed any emotion, you were weak. If they saw you cry, it was, ‘You’re fired. You want to play with the boys, you be a boy,’ ” Mulvihill said. Mulvihill went along with this for a while, but she became aware that internalizing powerful emotions can lead to depression, mental illness and suicide.
She earned multiple advanced degrees, including a doctorate in psychology from National Louis University. While not working for the Richton Park Fire Department, she operates a counseling business aimed at helping firefighters, police and members of the military who suffer from trauma and PTSD. She also encourages fellow Richton Park firefighters to share their feelings and process emotions related to tragic experiences they face on the job. “We don’t always go home when shift is up,” she said. “We stay and talk about it over the kitchen table.”
Richton Park Fire Chief Mick Smith and other chiefs preceding him have appreciated the contributions of women, according to Mulvihill. “Here, they gave me the opportunity to do what I’m good at,” she said. “They didn’t look at me as a woman. It was, ‘Can you do the job? Good. Then you’re a firefighter.’ ” Of the department’s 38-member firefighting staff, six are women. That 16% portion is notable because women make up only 9% of the fire service workforce nationally, according to 2020 figures available from the National Fire Protection Association.
Richton Park also employs a female fire inspector and female administrative assistant.
Employment of firefighters is expected to grow by 4%, or 28,000 positions, annually through 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With the U.S. Fire Administration promoting equity, inclusion and diversity in the workforce, numbers of female, LGBTQ and minority firefighters are expected to rise as well. Diversity brings more points of view to emergency response work, and it’s better to have firefighters who are representative of the community, Chief Smith said.
“For a long time, women haven’t been appreciated for the things they can bring to the fire service, but they’ve shown us you can learn something you didn’t know from others,” he said. “I have a deep respect for all women in the fire service. I’ve also tried to foster acceptance for any kind of minority, and in this field, women are a definite minority.”
Besides having fought fires, driven firetrucks and led teams responding to fires and other emergencies, Mulvihill has led campaigns to help girls and young women realize “you don’t have to be a man to do this job,” she said.
During a 2017 career fair at Tinley Park High School, she recruited Alysa Fox, who originally intended to be a nurse. She now works as an assistant EMS coordinator for Richton Park.
When a car crashed and hit a light pole in September on Interstate 57, Fox sprang into action along with Capt. Ron Robinson and Lt. Pat Hisel, extricating four people from the wreckage and providingmedical care until support arrived from other area fire departments. The crash victims were successfully transported to medical facilities for treatment. For this, Fox and the others received a unit citation from the Richton Park for Outstanding Service in the Field.
Though Fox has proved she can handle the work, she acknowledged women generally possess less upper body strength than men. “Our bodies are different, but we get the same job done in the end,” Fox said. “We use more of the strength in our legs, but we can still get things done.” To pass the International Association of Fire Fighters’ Candidate’s Physical Abilities Test, prospective firefighters have just 10 minutes and 20 seconds to complete eight grueling tasks following strict protocols.
To start, they must climb stairs for more than three minutes wearing a 50-pound vest representing the weight of fire gear, plus carry another 25 pounds to simulate a bundle of hose for fighting fires inhigh rise buildings. For the remaining tasks, they shed the 25-pound bundle but continue wearing the 50-pound vest, dragging a heavy hose, dragging a 165-pound mannequin, using a sledgehammer to demonstrate forcible entry, crawling through a small dark tunnel filled with obstacles, erecting a ladder, and demonstrating their ability to breach a roof.
For Fox, who is small in stature, the vest hung down and made climbing the stairs more difficult, and yet she passed. Her unrelenting motivation to become a firefighter is shared by others on the department. “I just like helping people. I wanted to do something to give back to the community,” she said.
But there’s much more to the women’s service efforts than responding in emergencies. The Rotary Club of Matteson recently honored Fox and Mulvihill for their fire prevention” and public education efforts. Mulvihill — who said “I like to plant seeds in the minds of children that they can do anything they want when they grow up” — was noted for constantly creating new programs, initiatives and events. Fox was recognized for making sure the village ambulances are fully stocked and prepared for the field. Thanks to them and their co-workers, students from Richton Park schools frequently tour the fire station at 4455 Sauk Trail Road. The station annually conducts two separate weeklong summer campsfor children ages 5 to 12.
Mulvihill isn’t the only woman at Richton Park FD to mentor new firefighters, either. “Lieutenant Nancy is our leadership here, but a lot of people consider me the mom of the department,” said Jeanina Payne-Baker, firefighter/paramedic. “I’m passionate about the culture here, our commitment to helping people.”
Payne-Baker, who joined Richton Park Fire Department five years ago at age 38, lives in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. She started paying attention to EMTs who responded to calls she placedto Chicago’s 911 system regarding her father who was recovering from a stroke. “I relied on 911 heavily. I had no medical expertise,” she said. “Everyone who responded helped me. They saw what I was trying to do for my dad, and they educated me about what to do when he didn’t look right and wasn’t breathing right.”
Not long after, Payne-Baker was laid off from her job with a nonprofit organization. Hoping to help a friend, she looked into taking a class with an ambulance service and ended up enrolling herself.After working for the company to see if the work was a good fit, she went on to paramedic school. She completed the necessary ride time with Country Club Hills Fire Department, where she gained the support of a strong mentor who encouraged her to apply for a permanent position at Richton Park.
Since then, the favorite part of her job, she said, has been “the teamwork — being able to problem-solve together.” Before rushing in where angels fear to tread, Payne-Baker said, “We have a huddle, so we can preplan.”
That huddle, which is standard for most departments, may last less than a minute, but it promotes a more successful response and can prevent injuries, the women said. Smith agreed. “The first five minutes of any fire or emergency are the toughest. That’s when so much is unknown,” he said. “When staff communicate, things go from chaos to organized chaos. As we’re able to get a handle on each job, it just gets better and better for everyone involved.”
Even with more women entering the field, female firefighters still remain a bit of a novelty. “When Alysa and I work together, people always remember us,” said Payne-Baker. “I still get a thrill out of the double take people do when they see me driving the truck — people saying, ‘Hey, that’s a woman!’ and the little kids waving,” Mulvihill said.