STEVENSVILLE — Tatin Keyes is not much over 5 feet tall and weighs not much more than 100 pounds. In the fall she’ll be a junior at Lakeshore High School. She’s just 16 years old.

And Tatin, the daughter of Phil and Abbey Keyes, is in training to become the Lincoln Township Fire Department’s first-ever female firefighter.

“I grew up with this and within the last year I started really thinking about the future,” Tatin said. “A girl can do anything a boy can if you put your mind to it.”

As part of a physical agility test, she’ll have to drag a 195-pound dummy 100 feet, as though rescuing a large adult from a fire.

“She has fit right in and has actually beaten some of the guys in training exercises,” said Lincoln Township Fire Chief Brandon Chiarello.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2017 there were approximately 1,056,200 local firefighters in the U.S. and of them, 373,600 (35 percent) were career firefighters, while 682,600 (65 percent) were volunteer firefighters.

Of the total number, just 77,900 (7 percent) were women. Of the career firefighters, 13,400 (4 percent) were women. 

A growing trend here?

Many of Southwest Michigan’s fire departments now have female firefighters, and chiefs say they welcome the diversity.

“We have three female firefighters out of 27,” said Sister Lakes Fire Chief Anthony Lozada. One of them is his wife, Ashley, who has been a firefighter for 10 years. Another is Natasha Stewart, whose grandfather was a firefighter, as is her husband, Anthony Stewart, assistant chief for Sister Lakes.

“I’ve always had an admiration for firefighters,” said Natasha Stewart. “Living it and seeing the lives impacted, it made me want to help people too.”

She has been a firefighter since 2011.

“We go to accidents and fires. I think probably the most memorable call for me was the first time I drove the truck with lights and sirens,” she said. “I pulled up and it was a huge grass fire. I realized I can drive the truck, too, and I got a lot of high fives.”

Stewart said she gets no negative feedback from her fellow firefighters in her department but, “When we go to outside trainings, I feel like some think we’re inferior and that’s not true. We’re assumed to be inferior, but that’s not the case in our department. We all work as a team.”

Stewart said most of the fire departments in the area have at least one woman firefighter.

“It’s pretty cool. We can do anything the guys can do and in some cases, we can do it better. Things like fitting into smaller spaces, or calming a little kid,” she said.

‘It happened naturally’

Berrien Springs-Oronoko Fire Department chief Bruce Stover said his department has had at least six women firefighters, and currently has one. The first female was Lorraine Swartz, in 1989.

In 1996, Stover’s daughter Kristina (Stover) Burks joined the ranks. She retired from firefighting in 2018 after 22 years on the department. She has been a state fire investigator and is now a 911 dispatcher, Stover said.

“For us I think it happened naturally. But I see a lot more countywide, and it’s definitely a source we need to make sure we tap into,” he said. “We’re all equal. They have the same dedication. If you’re dedicated to serving the public, you’re an asset to the department.”

North Berrien Fire Rescue Chief Michael Mattix said his roster of 23 firefighters includes two women, and “I have a female’s application currently on my desk right now.”

He said firefighting in general has been “a predominately male macho business, but that is definitely changing. And I think that’s good.”

Mattix said women bring diversity into the fire house.

“They bring as much passion for the job as I’ve seen from their male counterparts,” he said. “From a personal standpoint, I would welcome more females into the fire service. We see people sometimes at the lowest points in their lives, we’re helping them deal with it, and I think the females coming in gives us better tools, better mechanisms to help emotionally deal with these things. I don’t want to sound like I’m stereotyping, but women bring compassion, which is normal.”

Mattix said he has seen reports and articles about harassment of women firefighters, but he has not seen it in his department.

“As a chief, I won’t tolerate that. So if they do have an opinion (about having female firefighters) they leave it at the door. And when the female walks in the door, they’re a firefighter, who just happens to be a girl,” he said.

The path

Tatin Keyes will serve as a cadet with the Lincoln Township Fire Department until she completes Firefighter I and Firefighter II courses and turns 18, at which time she will be eligible to work as a full-time firefighter.

During her two years of training, she can go on calls, tap fire hydrants, stretch hose lines and get equipment off a fire truck, but cannot go inside a burning structure. She plans to take the firefighter courses at the Fire Academy at Berrien Springs Oronoko Township Fire Station while in high school, completing those courses by the end of the next school year and taking EMT classes the following year.

She trains on various topics twice a month alongside other Lincoln Township firefighters. Recent topics included search and rescue, and using the Jaws of Life tool to free people trapped in vehicles. The tool weighs between 50 and 75 pounds, Chiarello said.

“It’s hard to recruit firefighters, especially departments like ours that are volunteer or paid on-call. Not many people want to wake up at 2 a.m., and there’s a lot of training time to keep up with things,” the chief said. “For (Tatin), taking it in high school and starting young is the way to go. She’ll come out of high school as a firefighter and EMT.”

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa