Behind the Badge: Two women launch careers at Lake Dillon Fire
After the call buzzed through the radios on an icy Wednesday morning, the two rigs swiftly departed from the Keystone station, just before the shift change. By 8 a.m., Shannan Stensvad, a firefighter with Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue, traded shifts with Jenna Watson, another firefighter who joined the station just five months ago.
“When the snow drops, it makes the roads very icy,” Stensvad said, noting the station was fortunate to have the resources to respond to a heavy call load. “Most of our calls are actually medical calls. We run quite a few fire alarms with the resort over here.”
The car accident was one of several that morning, marking the end of Stensvad’s 48-hour shift. Watson, who had just started her shift when the volume of calls came in, commutes back and forth from Denver to work in the mountains.
“You meet a lot of interesting people from all over the place,” she noted of her work in Summit.
While both firefighters are relatively new to the field, they are following in the footsteps of several strong leaders, including Lake Dillon Fire board member Lori Miller, former chief for Red, White & Blue Fire in Breckenridge. Miller worked for nearly 30 years in the fire service and served as the first woman chief in an all-career fire department statewide.
“Sometimes it felt like you had to prove yourself twice: prove yourself as a firefighter and then prove yourself as a woman,” Miller said in a prior interview.
While jumping headfirst into a competitive career can be daunting, both women agreed it was worth it.
A FRESH START
Looking back several years, neither Stensvad nor Watson initially planned to join the fire service. For Stensvad, the moment of realization came after she had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business, reflecting on her parents’ joy in working as firefighters.
“I soon realized I didn’t want to sit at a desk and do that 8-to-5 job,” Stensvad said. A third-generation firefighter, both her parents served as captains, and her maternal grandfather served in fire-rescue as well.
“They just had this happiness about them. You don’t see a lot of people come home from work after 48 hours, still happy and enjoying their job,” Stensvad said.
Starting in Granby as a volunteer, Stensvad participated in Grand Fire Protection District’s residence program, where she received hazmat and ice-rescue training and obtained her Firefighter One Two certifications. She also pursued EMT-training independently.
While her mother was thrilled when she made the decision, Stensvad recalled her father was nervous — initially.
“He kind of lost that battle,” Stensvad laughed. “Now, he’s very excited.”
She recalled her mother’s words of wisdom at the beginning: “(She) told me to keep a positive outlook and you’ll find work and everything a lot more enjoyable,” Stensvad said.
Watson’s story took a similar turn. Pursuing a psychology degree in college, she took an EMT course, when a friend who was volunteering for the Clear Creek Fire Authority persuaded her to try a ride-along.
Watson pursued additional EMT and wildland fire training while volunteering for the Fire Authority for two years prior to joining Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue.
“It’s a competitive field,” Watson said. “I was very excited to get hired up here.”
TRIALS AND THRILLS
Starting a career in a traditionally male-dominated field can be daunting. According to the 2010 census, women accounted for fewer than five percent of employed firefighters.
“I know girls get dissuaded sometimes because it’s a male-dominated field. But you can do it,” Watson said.
“At first, I was more nervous than anything, just to be in that kind of world,” Stensvad said. “I felt comfortable after a while and soon felt like I fit in right away. …They welcomed me with open arms. Everyone wants the best for you.”
Both emphasized the importance of training in keeping up with the work, with the same tests for all applicants.
“You’re carrying 75 pounds of gear,” Stensvad said. “I try to train as much as I can to meet those expectations.”
Physical strength is just one of the requirements — emotional resilience is a factor, too.
“Sometimes you get bad calls, and you have to figure out how to deal with that,” Watson said. “You see people on the worst day of their life. … But it’s the greatest job; to pursue it, you have to work through that.”
Stensvad recalled one call she responded to in Granby — a rollover accident where she and a colleague had to cut a patient, who had a broken back, out of his car before transporting him to Denver.
“Almost a year later, he came looking for the girl with curly brown hair and the tall kid with freckles, the other person who was cutting this man out of the car,” she said. “He had tears in his eyes. He came and personally thanked us. There was not a dry eye there.”
Watson, who sees several medical incidents this time of year, noted she sees several cases related to dehydration, altitude or a combination of both. Both women also responded to a few concussions this year.
“With medicals, you’re not always quite sure what’s going on. It’s interesting,” Watson said. “You’re looking for clues to figure it out — have they eaten today, and checking their blood sugar.”
In the end, Stensvad’s final piece of advice for those entering the field is that drive and determination are key to doing a good job.
“Women are capable of incredible things, and if you go through the training and get that knowledge, there is nothing saying you can’t do the job just like any male in the field,” Stensvad said. “Don’t let that fog your vision on what you want to do.”
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