Celebrating Women’s History Month

Synthia Kearney, Battalion Chief - Gastonia Fire Department


A Pivotal Moment That Influenced My Path

The influence that ignited my desire to be a firefighter was the TV show Emergency back in the 1970s.  As a teenager, I told my mother that I wanted to be a firefighter, and while she didn’t say no, she encouraged me to pursue a different path through a college education (in the 1970s you did not need college to have a firefighting career).  After working as a Special Agent with the US Secret Service and the Bureau of ATF, I decided to be a stay-at-home mom after the birth of my second child.  When finances dictated that I needed to go back to work, I decided to pursue my childhood dream and become a firefighter.


Women Who Inspired Me

My mother has always been an inspiration to me.  She embodies sacrificial love, dedication, and support.  She and my father instilled an expectation of doing your best and caring about others. She always let me know that no one was better than me and I was not better than anyone else.  Each person has value because they are human. She passionately cared for, protected, and provided for her family and she continues to do so today.


Overcoming Challenges as a Woman in the Workplace

One of the challenges of being a female in fire service was that a male who has passed all the requirements to be hired is assumed to be able to do the job until he proves he can’t, whereas a female who has passed all of the requirements to be hired is not assumed to be able to do the job until she proves she can.  I made sure I consistently scored top scores on tests.  I consistently work out and maintain physical fitness and I proved that I had the physical strength to do the job.

My second biggest challenge came after being promoted.  I had been accepted as a firefighter but after topping the promotional list and being the first female promoted to Captain (and promoted ever), suddenly any decision the department made, that my crew felt went against them, they felt I was the reason why.  I worked through these issues by making sure our company was training and letting the crew have input on training.  I attempted to assist crew members with any needs they had, support them with career goals, and even assist with some of their childcare needs.



Finding Work/Life Balance as a Woman

Initially, I was married and had my husband’s assistance with childcare issues with my scheduled hours. After our divorce, I had to hire a woman to come to my house and stay overnight with my daughter while I worked because I did not have family living close by.  Parents of other kids sometimes were able to get my daughter to or from practice and/or games.  I delayed going for promotions because it was difficult to have the time to take some of the needed classes due to family responsibilities.  My advice is to foster a support system and be creative when necessary.



Advice for Women Thinking of Joining the Fire & Rescue Workforce

Make sure you are working out so that you can physically do this job. Get exposure to firefighting either through a volunteer department, going through a rookie academy, or starting a fire science degree program. Also, do a ride-a-long with a department and talk with some firefighters. Once you are working and have gained acceptance and respect, be aware that you may have to prove yourself multiple times.



Staying Motivated in the Face of Obstacles

Prayer and my relationship with God, support from family and friends, and support from allies in the department help keep me motivated when faced with obstacles.



Importance of Being a Self-Advocate 

I had a Captain who would always give the other firefighters any active assignment on the fire scene. I finally went to him privately and expressed my frustration, asking what issues he had with me doing the job.  I learned he didn’t have issues with my ability, he just decided unconsciously to “protect the female”.  He apologized and then began letting me do my job.



How Mentorship Shaped Me

I think mentorship is the backbone of professional development for any firefighter and is crucial in helping a female firefighter get the acceptance she deserves. I have had several mentors in my career from my first permanent Captain who made sure to give me assignments and was proud of my ability to perform as well if not better than my peers, to experienced minority firefighters who encouraged me and helped advocate for a more diverse workplace, to the Captain I had during difficulties in my marriage, who had experienced a divorce and was a support system during this difficult time, to the Captain I had when divorce left me financially vulnerable with kids to support. He encouraged me to take the classes I needed and to take the promotional exam so I could get promoted and he continued to mentor me when I tested for Battalion Chief.


Empowering Women of Different Backgrounds

Sometimes my very presence is a conversation starter. I have many times been on the scene of an incident and a child will say I didn’t know a “girl could be a firefighter.”  I have spoken to school classes about firefighting, gone to career fairs, spoken at conferences, and been an assessor at many promotional assessment centers.  I am a visual reminder that a woman can do this job, do it well, succeed, and move into leadership.  I often ask little girls and teenage girls I have the opportunity to talk to; “Do you want to be a firefighter?” and some of them say yes.


A Note to My Younger Self

This career is wonderful, the best job in the world, and you will have some very good times and make some very good friends. There will be times when you feel you are not getting the training you need and you will be right. You have to speak up and advocate for your own training. When you hit the difficult times, when you feel ostracized it will be harder and last longer than expected.  Remember you do have people who care about you, remember to encourage and support those you are responsible for even if they don’t trust you, and do the right thing because it’s the right thing.  And always remember, the only person’s actions you can control are your own actions!