The Home of the Brave

To strong women, may we know them, may we be them, may we see them in action. Get to know 3 women, 3 firefighters of different ranks, as they share their worlds as true heroines. A Fire Chief, a Fire Captain and a Firefighter walk into your life. They remind us how limitless we are, how daring we should be, and how fearless we can be. 

@Nicminnick

Nicole Minnick

A Captain Paramedic of a Phoenix Fire Department, she comes into focus on our Zoom call. She warns me that she might have to scarf down her taco salad while we speak. Of course! You are the emblem of justice and heroism in our world, a leader in your world, and a paramedic on top of all that. You can absolutely finish your lunch. There is a constant sense of urgency that whirls around her, she is ready to leave her desk at a moment’s notice to go brave whatever challenge Phoenix decides to throw at her that day. She didn’t grow up wanting to be a firefighter, but there is no doubt that she is exactly where she should be.

I was always an athlete, I played 3 sports in college and afterwards, I didn’t know what to do with this energy level I had. I couldn’t sit at a desk but I wanted to do something big. Something great.

She worked at the floor of the Mercantile Exchange and clerked for a commodities trader before even considering this role. As in, she has been comfortable in the boys’ clubs of careers for a long time. It was fast, it was high energy, it was crazy, but it wasn’t fulfilling. It was only a chance suggestion by a friend to think about joining the Fire Department that sparked a lifelong purpose for Minnick. But one thing about finding purpose, you will face constant threats to it. In those moments, you decide, is it worth it? Is this what I want? When approaching a fire station in Chicago, she was told they don’t really hire women. A post-grad young adult who wasn’t even sure if this was really her passion yet was already being told that it will be a battle. 

When it comes to dealing with the fraternity that most firehouses are, Minnick chose to focus on herself and her goals, and in doing so, paved a much needed path for other women to become captains of their lives.

There were times I went into a station that didn’t necessarily want a woman there. You put your armor on. I wasn’t there to change the world or the culture. I was there to do the best job I could do in the calling that I felt I was supposed to be in.

 

Destiny kicked in, according to Minnick, because of a fire captain in Glendale, Arizona whose tap on the shoulder solidified her career. From that moment on, it was an unwavering pursuit of service, and of justice, as a firefighter. Her first day as part of a private ambulance company was the day the Twin Towers were struck in New York City on September 11, 2001. 

 

 

She strives for perfection at her job but bravely accepts herself as the human she is; strong yet fallible, determined and imperfect, a woman with a goal and more importantly, the grit to achieve them.

You have to work towards equality and change in a healthy way and respect the history of it.

Minnick is more than aware of the challenges women face in the field but her surety of her own skills is inspiring. She reassures herself in those moments of resistance that she is doing her best and that is all that can be done. “I just have to know in my heart, am I treating people the way I want to be treated? Am I holding myself to the standard that I expect of other people?

Do I show integrity when nobody’s looking?

Mentorship is a pillar of the community that these women have built. Minnick describes the responsibility she feels to give back the wisdom and guidance she so gratefully received by the mentors that came before her. The Valley Women’s Firefighter Society is a response to this obligation. A safe space, an affinity group, for women to begin asking questions about a career in the fire department, welcomed by a community working to recruit, train, and teach those that come after them.

Laura Bradley

A recruit from that Valley Women’s Firefighter Society who has served at her firehouse for the last 3 years. She still considers herself to be new on the scene because of the nature of her profession: the role of a firefighter has evolved to become so much more than Emergency Services and literal fire fighting.

We are problem solvers and we grow with the job.

Bradley’s catalyst for her career may have had something to do with coming from a firefighting family, with her uncle, her brothers, all in service. But just like Minnick’s story, it was a coworker and friend of Bradley’s that suggested the career path to her as she was working as a personal trainer in college (let’s just take a moment to appreciate the people in our lives that push us towards our future). Bradley eagerly welcomes challenges, and the idea of the unknown that is a part of a firefighter’s daily routine was the trap to her fly mind. She speaks of her career as someone who is truly and deeply enamored with the journey.

I love my job, I tell people I never work a day in my life.

Her passion for sports throughout her life translated almost seamlessly into her love for her profession. “My family jokes that I grew up with a ball in my hand. I have always been a team player and a fire station is just one big team.” She finds her stride by being who she is; athletic, intuitive, hard working and contagiously positive. When describing a call two shifts ago, she accompanies the story with a beaming smile. A female paramedic (Miss Bradley herself) was needed on the scene for a female patient. “I felt special. I felt needed.” A firefighter becomes the jack of all trades and because of the job’s demand for adaptability, there are infinite ways to use your skills to be valuable in any situation, man or woman. 

 

 

Bradley is confident, but her confidence is neither abrasive nor intimidating. She knows her value and her rhetoric oozes optimism and compassion. She is a forever student, noting how she is always asking questions at her job and probably will never stop. She is not a roving firefighter but instead, has a permanent spot in her fire station and that has made all the difference. Creating a family out of strangers, acknowledging her emotional intuition (especially when a particularly stressful call affects her differently than her coworkers), and putting her service before herself cements her as an irreplaceable part of the dynamic of the station.

She reminds us why women are needed in all spaces, not just for the benefit of our ambition, but also to amplify the strength of the whole force. Her station is above average in terms of the percentage of women that are employed (4% compared to the national average of 1-2%), and it’s only made them a more formidable team. 

 

 

When Bradley was hired, she had to name her beneficiaries in the documents. Death, and mortality are inevitable conversations that they have but it only serves to remind these women just how sure they are of their purpose. As she’s describing the emotional toll this may take on her family, there is a loud ringing tone behind her and a flashing light, a call to action. Just like that, she puts aside the sentiment and tells me she has to go. 

Before she leaves the call, Bradley is sure to mention another one of her incredible mentors, and for good reason. 

Reda Riddle-Bigler

As Fire Battalion Chief, and one of the first to be a woman, Riddle-Bigler is a force of her own. She comes into focus, wearing a crewneck adorned with her title and the insignia of the Phoenix Fire Department, and my posture definitely straightened involuntarily. She was also an athlete, and it is no coincidence that all three of these women are as physically strong as they are mentally. 

 

 

Tapping people on the shoulder to remind them of their potential and possibility is another theme amongst these women. Riddle-Bigler is keen on this aspect of mentorship, and when imagining the qualities that would make a great firefighter, she cites “total wellness.” Work ethic, integrity, and good communication skills translates into a person who can take care of themselves and the world around them. There is no room for discrimination and biases, the objective is to serve. She was the face of the Phoenix Department for a while as the Public Information Officer and it really impressed upon her how important that integrity and reputation was in this career. And now, as chief, her responsibility lies more with her firefighters, and she crafts her position so that she can help them do the best job they can. 

 

 

She is humble. She barely indulges in her trailblazing moment of becoming one of the first women in her position before mentioning her contemporaries Chief Kara Kalkbrenner and the 2016 appointed Phoenix Police Chief Jeri L Williams, as two women who stood as a spectacular moment for progress. She understands and highlights the value of female leadership and does not waver in saying she has what it takes.

 

 

When she was pregnant with her twins and then her third child, she was taken off the firetruck and placed in staff jobs. Reda has a way of making every opportunity work for her because even in those moments, she recalls that learning behind the scenes informed her and leveled her up in a way she couldn’t have predicted. Her career is a tell tale of grabbing the reins, in whatever form they come, and persevering forward with good intent.

I was always appreciative. I always wanted to learn something new and help other people and learn their position. I never was somebody that talked about being a captain or a chief. When the opportunity presented itself, I would just take advantage of it.

 

 

She is just at the backend of her career with at least a 30 year future as a firefighter to look forward to. Now comes intentionality. Now comes the time to reflect on her influence and the power she yields. She does so with incredible insight. Mentorship is her passion and the ways she is deliberately creating a path for those who come after speaks volumes of her greatness as a leader, both on and off the field. She doesn’t have time to entertain the biases women face in the workplace. She is too busy looking ahead and marching forward with an appreciation for the past tethering her values.  

 

 

Now get this, she takes me on a call with her. On Facetime in the front seat of her vehicle, I watch smoke billowing up into the clear Phoenix sky, clouding some palm trees and my mind. I am frozen, my thoughts at a standstill, even though I know the fire is nowhere near me in NYC. She remains calm on the phone, training someone while she receives transmission of the details of the incident. A BBQ gone wrong. I can’t stop thinking about the people that might be hurt. Two trucks already on the scene before she arrives, neighbors not sure whether to ogle at the firefighters or the smoke, and Riddle-Bigler doing what she does best, leading her team. I hang up. I’ve seen enough and am sure as hell not helping the situation. To see firefighters in action is to see all their words come to cinematic life. They are not pretending to be anything, this is it, this is who they are, and it is as simple as a coal starting a fire.

Let’s heed the lessons these women have taught us. Be true to yourself, find your purpose and its persistence, share your wisdom, and always remember to keep your shoulders ready for that tap. 

 

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