Nearly six months into the job, Amber Barnes still gets surprised looks when she arrives at the scene of a local emergency and takes off her fire helmet.
Barnes, a 32-year-old mother of three from China Spring, became the first female firefighter for the city of Bellmead on July 7.
“I was the tomboy growing up. I was never the princess type, staying in a room. I was always the one going outside and getting dirty,” Barnes said. “I always knew I was either going to be a firefighter or a police officer. I just like to help people, and I’ve always wanted to be a part of something that was bigger than yourself.”
Making her mark as the city’s first full-time female firefighter, Barnes doesn’t give much thought to her status as a pioneer.
“I am held to the same standards as everyone else. You can’t really change standards when you go out on the type of calls that we do, but I would never want to be held to different standards,” she said.
“When we go to schools for events, some of the kids say, ‘Oh, it’s a female firefighter,’ but I just tell them that I am just a firefighter. I get more comments from people who have known me for a while . . . but sometimes people are kind of surprised.”
Bellmead Fire Chief Billy Hlavenka said he never gave a second thought to hiring Barnes, who passed testing and physical requirements similar to her male co-workers. Hlavenka, who has been with the fire department for nearly 25 years, said hiring the city’s first female firefighter was an adjustment, but Barnes is fitting in well.
“She went through our process of hiring with testing, interview process and the physical assessment and she passed all of them,” Hlavenka said. “We had to make some adjustments to make sure she is comfortable, but she fits in.”
Lt. Justin Shaw, Barnes’ shift supervisor, said the adjustment was more notable to the 11 other firefighters than to Barnes. He said Barnes came in with a sense of humor and a dedication to hard work, making her a good addition to the firehouse.
“I think it was more of a culture shock for us rather than for her when she came in, because there is a lot of ‘guy talk’ that goes on, so we were really watching our p’s and q’s for the first few weeks,” Shaw said. “The fire service has been a man’s world, but now females are coming into it. That is great. I just wanted her to let me know if it ever got too much for her and we could tone it down, but she can give it back just as much as we can.”
Rules of the firehouse were adjusted and partitions were added in dorm sleeping quarters, Hlavenka said. Wesley Hunke, a Bellmead firefighter for nine years, and Jeremy Rosas, a firefighter for seven years, agreed that the camaraderie and respect continue to grow between Barnes and her male counterparts.
“She stepped into a firefighter’s role, so that is how we all look at her,” Hunke said. “Females in emergency services is not something new when you consider we have a female police chief and other strong female leaders here, so this is nothing new for Bellmead.”
Bellmead Police Chief Lydia Alvarado is the only female police chief in McLennan County, while Lacy Lakeview Fire Chief Patty Byars-Faulkner is the first-ever female fire chief and only female fire department employee in Lacy Lakeview. Byars-Faulkner, who has been chief for about 3½ years, said when she began her career in Dallas in 1989, a woman’s role in the fire department was rare with only 11 women on the force.
“I’ve learned that this is really about what you bring to the table. I’ve learned that once you know how your body works and what you can do, the sky is the limit,” she said. “I think when you do your job and you don’t expect preferential treatment because of your gender, I think everyone learns that you can do your job.”