IN THE UNITED STATES, less than five percent of firefighters are women. That compares with 26.8 percent of police officers and about 18 percent of military enlisted recruits. Traditionally, firefighters have been mostly men and on the surface, it’s easy to see why. The physical demands alone would be daunting to most people: climbing massive ladders, lifting 35 to 180-pound equipment and pulling bodies out of tight — and often high — spaces. Add the nonstop 24-hour shifts and a career in firefighting, especially for women, might sound less than ideal.
But don’t try selling that to Lori Henkemeyer and Stephanie Hartman, St. Tammany’s only female firefighters. They’re proof that brawn doesn’t beat brains in this male-dominated industry. And Mandeville’s District 4 Fire Chief Kenneth Moore wants the world to know it. “They both do a phenomenal job,” he said. “It’s rare for women to make it up the ranks like they have.” Captain Henkemeyer has been with the department for over 20 years and is on the promotion list for district chief, while Hartman has already been promoted to equipment operator during her five-year tenure. Their accomplishments are even more impressive given the low turnover rate of the department.
Female firefighters have learned to work smarter, not harder. Women don’t have the upper body strength that men do, so they’ve learned techniques and body mechanics to overcome that. Their jobs are physically demanding so they keep their bodies acclimated by working out every day with their gear on, even in the middle of Louisiana’s sweltering summers.
Neither Henkemeyer or Hartman grew up envisioning themselves as pioneers in the world of fire service. Henkemeyer was a college athlete and studied exercise physiology at the University of Kentucky while Hartman has a psychology degree from LSU. Both women knew they wanted a career where they could help people so when a position opened up at the fire station, they jumped at the opportunity. While the pair work at different stations, they share a similar vision: to shatter the misconception that firefighting is just for men.
The station’s 24-hour shifts allow crew members plenty of time of time to get to know each other, making it a family-like atmosphere. And just like any family, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Knowing these is important when the crew is summoned for duty. The advent of smoke alarms and fire safety awareness means the department receives far fewer fire calls than medical calls. To that end, Henkemeyer and Hartman are also paramedics.
But no matter what kind of call comes in, being a firefighter is all about public service. “When someone dials 911, they’re having a really bad day,” Hartman said. “We don’t have a clue what they’re going through, we’re just here to help.” Whether that means responding to a fire, a medical emergency or a cat stuck in a tree, these women have proven they can achieve —and even exceed — everything the boys can.