When Christina Litas was just 4 years old, she watched her home on Long Island, N.Y., burn to the ground. Fast forward 26 years, and Litas is making the most of her painful memory by volunteering for the Alpha Fire Company in State College. And it wasn’t a routine electrical fire.
Her older brother took a match to a Barbie doll under a bed. Her younger brother was just 3 months old and sleeping in a crib. He survived, in part, because their mom hurled a bike through the bedroom window so that firefighters could gain quick access. Litas remembers a helicopter whisking her baby brother away so that he could be treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation.
Litas’s route to firefighting was not a quick one. She spent eight years in the military and then earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. She is currently applying to graduate schools and is one of three active female firefighters at Alpha.
It’s not always smooth sailing — sharing a bathroom, taking showers with guys nearby and bunking overnight.
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“It’s a little like a frat house,” she says. “And a little bit of ‘Who stole my food in the fridge?’”
Alpha Fire Director Steven Bair hopes to change that perception by drawing in more women to increase his annual 4 percent female workforce.
“I think Alpha still has the look and feel of a male bastion when viewed from the outside,” he said.
Women have historically lagged way behind when it comes to offering to fight fires, and there are many challenges to recruiting them.
“People tend to join groups that have similar characteristics. A woman looking at Alpha will see mostly young men,” Bair said. He also cites a 2008 study by Cornell’s Institute for Women that concluded, barring a significant change in society, that women were not likely to be interested in firefighting.
Many women mistakenly think brute strength is a necessity. A petite woman who can handle the equipment is just fine. There are women who volunteer in other positions, such as website design and photography. And if you’d like to play chef for a night to feed the crew, the firefighter volunteers will gladly oblige.
“But it’s pretty simple; we need women who want to suit up,” Bair said. And suiting up means lugging about 50 pounds of gear on your back.
“Success in firefighting is more about body mechanics and efficient movement,” Bair said, “and there are women with better upper-body strength than their male counterparts.”
Volunteers also need lots of training, including learning the difference between the engine company, the truck company and the rescue company; distinguishing a firefighter with a blue hat versus a black one (a black hat means you’re officially trained and can be a fire company member); knowing how to use, clean and disinfect the self-contained breathing apparatus; attending mandated classes; practicing structural burns; and being ready to respond to the emergency app reply system via smartphone (called IamResponding.com).
Alpha volunteer Amy Luong, 20, took an EMT class at Penn State and decided to pursue being a volunteer firefighter. Luong, who is from Philadelphia, enjoys helping people, relishes the challenge and wants to make others smile — while possibly working toward a dentistry degree at Penn State.
“It’s very rewarding,” she says. “We are like family here.”
Ali Warren, who grew up in Boalsburg, started volunteering when she was 16 and has been a volunteer for more than 10 years.
“I enjoy taking care of people and being part of a team,” said Warren, who is also an EMT.
The presence of women can sometimes have a calming effect, according to Bair. “I think it’s good to have a service organization that reflects the population that it’s serving, and we serve a lot of women in the course of our work.”
He likes a variety of opinions from his team.
“Women often think about things from a different perspective than men. This is helpful in strategic planning,” he said. “Considering that 49 percent of the county’s population is female, recruiting women is important to maintaining a viable volunteer force.”
And how does Alpha promote itself?
“When we advertise, we specifically target radio stations and television shows with high female audience numbers,” Bair said. “We strive to include one or more women in our television ads. Hopefully, women will see more opportunity than risk and will give us a try.”
Alpha also holds annual open houses to recruit new members.
“Ideally we’d like to see a group of women join that would serve as a catalyst moving forward.”