Mindy Gabriel, Firefighter MINDY GABRIEL
is a firefighter
I have been a firefighter for the past fifteen years. I started in 2002, about a year after graduating from Ohio State University. The testing process for being a firefighter can be long, but for me it was thankfully fairly short. I was hired my first attempt at the process despite the fact that I had no prior firefighting experience. I am a bit of an accidental firefighter. I decided to start the testing process just prior to graduation from OSU. I studied exercise science and was a varsity rower, and I had previously fitness tested. I had also just completed spring racing season and had competed at the NCAAs. I was in top physical condition and was confident I could pass the difficult physical fitness requirements to get hired. I also got to fitness test firefighters during my exercise science labs. I found myself asking them all about their jobs and learning more about how they aid people. I guess if you look way back, I have always had an affinity for the “helper” professions. I knew I wanted to help people and drew inspiration from my mother being a night-shift nurse. Firefighting is a profession of tradition; historically knowledge has been passed down from father to son. Until I met with firefighters during my studies, I had not known a single firefighter personally. I didn’t realize it was a career option for me. Discovering it felt good; I have never really felt strongly about being a nurse.
Not knowing any firefighters personally before beginning my professional journey, I would say a few people have been my sources of inspiration to lead me down this path. My parents and my grandparents as a whole were extremely hardworking people. They were all farmers and had other jobs, too. My dad worked building roads and driving trucks during the day and farmed into the wee hours of the night during planting and harvest seasons. As I mentioned, my mother worked the night shift, and I swear she never slept well during her days to recover; she simply had too much to do with six kids in the house (I’m the eldest). My mother’s parents owned a dairy farm. They milked at 4:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., 365 days a year. They had a huge garden and grew most of their food. I remember going there in the evening to help feed the baby calves, working in their garden till sundown. My dad’s parents had a large farm, and we all baled hay in the summers. I recall my grandmother climbing up in the hayloft off the wagon and stacking square bales well into her sixties. I was always told that you don’t get anything without working hard. Growing up in a small farming community made it easier to relate to the guys, too, as many of us shared similar backgrounds. Aside from my family and community, another big inspiration was Lou O’Brien Berl, my first-year rowing coach at Ohio State. I had never met anyone like her. She was tough and beautiful, smart and funny; she taught my teammates and me not to make excuses, to not only talk and complain but to do something about it! She said things like “You are only scratching the surface of what your body can do” and “You can do anything for two minutes.” She also asked, when training, “What do you think Michigan is doing right now? Don’t let anyone ever be more fit than you; you can always control that.” If I learned the value of hard work from my family, I certainly learned from this gal to never give up and to never make excuses. I still use her lines all the time to motivate myself a good twenty years later.
When I was initially being hired as a firefighter, several departments in my area adopted the philosophy that they would find “good people” regardless of their experience level; they knew that hiring someone in this field is a twenty-five-year-plus commitment to their organization. I got lucky. These days, we ask that candidates have more training, usually paid for by the candidate up front.
When I began, I was primed for the job, having been a collegiate rower at OSU. I was essentially an athlete looking for a team, and the fire service is all about teamwork. I was immediately sent to fire and EMT school and then later to paramedic school at Grant Medical Center. About 80 percent of our work as firefighters is medical calls; I wanted to be a part of making those critical decisions by practicing quality emergency medicine. Today I work in a suburban department surrounded by the large urban area of Columbus, Ohio. We work calls in our city and the surrounding areas through mutual aid agreements. I am assigned to a medic and a ladder truck during each shift and rotate between the two. I have always served on our department’s fitness committee, with the goal of improving the health and wellness of our firefighters. Lately, I have been working on improving access to mental health benefits for first responders and developing networks to take care of firefighters after stressful incidents. I am working on a community health care model that links firefighters to vulnerable residents, like the elderly population, which is high in our area, to improve their access to care so they may continue living independently. Now feels like an exciting time!
If I weren’t firefighting, I would want to be a primary care doctor or working in hospice care. At the moment, I still like the idea of doing direct service with patients, but I would consider opportunities in leadership positions within a health care system.
Even though it’s exciting, my job is certainly risky; I can die or get seriously hurt doing it. Also, there has been an uptick of violence toward first responders, due to an increase in violence and rampant mental health problems. We have to be ever more diligent to keep ourselves safe. We have had to do a mind shift to understand that some people may want to hurt us. But I think being able to understand those risks helps you live more fully, too. Firefighters, on the whole, really enjoy their lives. I am a mother of three young children. I would not like to leave them in this world yet. We have many more adventures to take and lessons to learn together.
I would certainly like to see more women join this career. At this point, it doesn’t bother me being the extreme minority because I have discovered a network of women across my area. We are scattered about, but we have found each other and there is great support amongst us. This career is not for everyone. You really have to commit to the lifestyle. No matter what is going on in your life, whether you are young and free or nursing an infant at home or are taking care of your aging parents, the job is always twenty-four hours on and forty-eight hours off, usually for twenty-five-plus years. You can’t stop for a while and come back to it. You are either in or out. That is no easy task, given all of the obstacles life throws at you. I have been lucky to have a supportive partner at home to help out. There have been numerous times when my babies were very young that I realized that it was not normal for a mother to leave her kids for twenty-four hours. I think that is hard for many partners to understand because we often build our own families around examples from our childhood. My husband (who is also a firefighter) and I had few examples of families that worked like ours. We felt like we were really making it up as we went. Our kids seem fine. And I have had a lot less negative feedback than you might expect; mostly people have trouble understanding how we work into traditional gender roles. I think all working mothers are doing two full-time jobs with a lot less time to do it. I don’t know many women that work outside the home who are not also crushing it when it comes to taking care of their kids and their homes. In the beginning, people assumed I was not going to stay at my job after I had kids. They didn’t like that I was filling a spot that a more committed male candidate might want. But there is no use arguing with people who have those opinions. I don’t feel like dying on those hills. I have put very little value in stereotypes. I let people speak for themselves.
I love working on my mental health and community health care models. I am toying with the idea of working toward promotion to officer and beginning to think about my retirement job. If it requires schooling, I would start preparing for that soon. I don’t see myself stopping working for a very long time.
I think it is important when picking a career to think about what kind of impact you want to make on the world; to figure out your strengths and what kind of lifestyle you are looking for. Never think solely about money. I have found if you are doing something well with passion, the money will come. I probably wouldn’t have as much influence if I had chosen to be a tax attorney, no offense to tax attorneys. Your job can open doors for your personal advocacy work. It certainly has in my life.
It has been a true gift to have this profession. I feel that I have seen lifetimes of pain, sorrow, and immense joy. I work with some of the most kind and hardworking people I have ever met. We get to do incredibly hard things in our job—not only tasks that require great physical strength but great mental strength. Our job forces us to feel, to empathize with those experiencing the tragedies we witness. We see the best and worst in people. A firefighter’s mind is one that has captured all of humanity; this is both beautiful and terribly sad. We need to take care of one another. I don’t think I would have survived this profession without my strong female friendships, three children, and supporting husband. I have my rowing teammates and my book group gals. Strong women helping strong women. My husband is a rock star, too. Women can do anything they put their minds to, but you can’t do anything on your own. We owe so much to the people in the fabric of our lives.