Female Firsts in Hawai‘i Fire DepartmentMarch 2, 2020, 5:29 PM HST (Updated March 3, 2020, 10:01 AM)
When responding to a blaze, firefighters encounter a range of emotional conditions in the victims they’ve come to help: fear, despair, gratitude.
For one captain with the Hawai‘i Fire Department, however, there’s a certain condition that presents itself on every 911 call almost without fail — surprise.
“When I show up, people still say ‘Oh wow! You’re a lady!'” explained Cpt. Mel Keolanui, the first female fire Captain in Hawai‘i County’s history.
Keolanui can forgive the surprise, as a female in a fire suit isn’t exactly a common sight around the island. Of the 370 HFD personnel working in the fire and emergency medical services divisions, only nine are women.
But being outnumbered doesn’t matter to Keolanui who, at 41, has now been in the field for 15 years. She wanted to help people, she had a desire to pursue a medical profession and as a child, she interacted closely with responders on several occasions when they came to her home to provide care for her father.
“When you’re new, a rookie, you have to prove yourself no matter what your gender is,” Keolanui said. “I think it’s more about that than the fact you’re a female. Everyone has their eyes on you.”
That isn’t to say it’s been smooth sailing every step along her 15-year path. In firehouses dominated by men, Keolanui has encountered doubtful stares, eye-rolls and the general sentiment that the environment of the job “is no place for a woman.”
“There are those people who will talk smack, but when you work with a woman and she is pulling weight just like you, nobody is talking,” said HFD Batallion Chief Matthias Kusch, who serves as Keolanui’s commanding officer.
“The guys who have weak personalities, they’re the ones who most likely are going to try to push themselves up on someone’s back, whether that’s a female or a person from a different race,” Kusch continued. “But those same people, because they’re weak, when that person is around, they’ll be buddy-buddy and toe the line.”
While there are only nine women serving in HFD ranks, that’s still a 450% increase from 25 years ago when Kusch started with the department.
Stacy Domingo, a fire medical specialist 3, which is the equivalent of a Captain’s rank on the EMS side of the department, was actually the first woman in either division to earn that high of a ranking when she was promoted roughly one year ago.
Domingo said it’s women like Tracy Mayer, a paramedic in Kamuela, who trailblazed the path that allowed Domingo and Keolanui to reach the heights to which they’ve risen in the department.
“Tracy has always been a mentor to both of us,” Domingo said. “When we come into situations that we’re not really sure about as far as navigating our careers in a male-dominated field, she’s always been supportive, listened to us and given us her perspective.”
Many tough questions presented themselves early on in Domingo’s tenure with HFD, which at the age of 43 has now spanned 16 years.
“When we came into the department, some of the ‘old-timers’ would make a comment directly to us or say to other people that the fire station is not a place for women,” Domingo explained. “But I don’t necessarily think that they were sexist as much as it was just (trouble adapting to) a changing culture.”
“I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself. I felt I had to prove myself and make sure I did what I could to try to fit in since I wasn’t a man,” she continued. “But overall, the department has been accepting of women.”
Kusch said HFD has trended toward the respect and acceptance of women as fire, EMS or rescue personnel over the last quarter-century — a trend he hopes and expects will continue.
“It’s definitely grown, women in the department. With departments around the country, there’s a certain amount of machismo — a macho guy carrying a person out over his shoulder in a smoky scene. But that’s strictly Hollywood,” Kusch said.
“With fires, nothing is ever black and white,” he continued. “You have to run different configurations for whatever is called for. It’s very technical and mechanical. I think a lot of guys would like to think that’s the male domain, but Mel blew that up and showed that it’s not.”
What’s more, both Keolanui and Domingo are mothers. They say being away from their kids while working 24-hour shifts at Central Fire Station in Hilo — the busiest station per capita in all of Hawai‘i — takes a toll.
“It has been challenging to be away, or when you have the young ones and you have that nurturing instinct of wanting to stay home at night,” Domingo said. “There are the challenges of being pregnant and post-pregnancy, then in the first year of the child’s life, you are going back to work on a 24-hour shift.”
However, both women said the hard choices have been worth it.
Keolanui believes that as the “Oh wow! You’re a woman!” surprise factor begins to wane with more and more women taking up the uniform, it will produce an exponential effect.
“In time, no matter what gender you are, if you’re able to do the job and be confident in yourself, you can make it,” she said. “And a lot more women will look to the profession as a possibility.”
Kusch believes Keolanui and Domingo will serve as great role models for the next generation of female personnel at HFD.
“You get right away from (Keolanui and Domingo) — they are fierce. They are good firefighters, paramedics, captains and leaders,” Kusch said. “As women look at themselves differently, so do the men who surround them.”