The fire which raged in the house and which had caused three deaths in the family was extinguished. Lynn Kirkner promised herself she was too.
Seventeen years as a firefighter for the Hartsville Fire Co. was enough.
Seventeen years at the doorstep of tragedy, climbing 1,500+ degree burning buildings to see things she’d rather forget, willingly stepping into the jaws of danger, being burned and falling through crumbling floors, and watching fellow firefighters with families and dreams risk their lives. She would get her bachelor’s degree in child care from Temple University and help her neighbors in other ways.
After 17 years, she had become stressed watching the people in her community, where she climbed trees like a tomboy and played in the dirt, losing their homes, prized possessions and, in unfathomable cases, loved ones. This last conflagration had brought her to this salient moment.
Sweaty, sooty and physically and emotionally exhausted, Kirkner sat alone in a fire engine outside the two-storey house on Darrah Road in Warminster and cried, marking a period in her career as volunteer firefighter. His sense of duty to his community had been inflamed as a teenager. He was off now, punctuated by a long exhale of relief.
“I decided I was done,” Kirkner, 57, said the other day as he sat in the back room of the Hartsville Fire Co. “I remember that call vividly. It was in November (15e) 1999. An 8-year-old boy, his 42-year-old father and 68-year-old grandmother died in the fire. The fire was extinguished. People have died. I sat in the fire truck outside the house and quit. I thought of this little boy. I had finished.”
She was sure she was done.
His devotion to his community reminded him otherwise.
Firefighters are part of the solution
Twenty-three years later, Kirkner sat down at a long table in the Hartsville Fire Hall and shared her feelings about rediscovering the burning passion for service soon after nearly walking away that tragic night 10 days before Thanksgiving. Essential reasons why she decided to continue serving instead of moving away.
“I remember after that fire a counselor came to talk to us,” she recalls, as a sign reading “Real heroes don’t need capes” perched on the edge of a whiteboard looked over his right shoulder. “They let us all talk about it, what we did, what we saw. Talking about it all helped. Ultimately, you pull yourself together, learn from what happened how you might be able to prevent something bad from happening with the next one, and move on. There is always something to learn from a death by fire.
“So why did I decide to continue? At 2:30 in the morning, when someone is going through their worst moment, I am part of the solution. I am the lucky one. Other than meeting my husband here and being blessed with our children, being here has been the greatest blessing of the past 40 years.
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Why so few female firefighters?
On August 3, Kirkner will observe 40 years in Hartsville. So many years, so many hats, so many ups and downs, and so few like her across America.
According to National Fire Protection Associationsince the 1980s, when she joined the fraternity of firefighters, the number of female firefighters has increased more slowly than a crawl, from 1% to 6%, to number 69,600 among the country’s 1.16 million set of firefighters.
The question remains: why haven’t more women followed in Kirkner’s footsteps?
In addition to the physical demands of being a firefighter and concerns about gender bias from co-workers, women in the field face gender-specific cancers from exposure to carcinogens and other chemicals. which, although not yet fully studied and understood, can impact fetal development. . A study 2018 by the National Institutes of Health found that 27% of pregnancies among female firefighters ended in miscarriage and that preterm births were almost 7 percentage points higher than the national average of 10%.
According to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, all firefighters are regularly exposed to chemicals, including carbon monoxide, which have been linked to miscarriages, birth defects, slowed fetal growth and development. impaired brain.
“I will honestly say that a big part of the reason there aren’t more women is that we’re the stay-at-home moms with the kids,” Kirkner said. “It’s a little different when you’re going to put your life on the line when you’re a mom. That’s a big question.
“When I got here I’m sure there were probably bets on how long I would last. But I’ve been lucky that the guys at this company are very courteous and kind. I’ve seen some others at other companies who are rougher around the edges. But by 2022, I felt there would be more women. In my career at Hartsville, there have only been four other women.
Women firefighters prove themselves
Ed Pfeiffer remembers that day 40 years ago. William Tennent senior Lynn Marcy, all 5-foot-2 and 120 pounds of determination, confidently walked into the Hartsville Fire Co. and told the fire chief she wanted to be a firefighter.
“From the start, Lynn was tenacious, eager to learn from her mistakes and committed to doing what she had to do to become a firefighter,” said Pfeiffer, 77, the current HFC president, who is in his 54.e year with the fire company. “That’s how she was and still is.
“At that time it was quite unusual for a woman to be in the fire service. At the time, I’m not sure the average woman thought she could do some of the physical labor required. But we have learned that those who try, those who are serious, can do it. It’s proven.
“In Lynn’s case, she showed a lot of interest from the start. When you show interest, it changes the attitudes of other firefighters. They saw that she wasn’t just going through the motions; she was engaged. When the others saw this, they didn’t mind showing her what to do beyond all the training she was undergoing. Lynn hasn’t been here just 40 years; she became a model.
Michael Cox, a 29-year-old colleague, agrees.
“People who still think women can’t be firefighters are wrong,” said Cox, an HFC volunteer firefighter and career firefighter with Upper Moreland Fire Department No. 10, who began his career as a fire company cadet and whose father, John, is a former HFC fire chief. “Lynn proved it. She worked her way up – was a lieutenant and captain, at one point – which tells you something. Not only did she prove herself and meet expectations, but she exceeded them.
As Cox spoke, Kirkner sat across the room. At one point, she jokingly said, “Mike, speak well of me!” Cox laughed and said, “I don’t have to make up nice things to say about her; she is a role model for many of us.
Firefighting is a vocation
Kirkner’s devotional tree has many sturdy branches.
There’s one for firefighting, although physical demands over the years prompted her in 2012 to quit the ladders and earn the title of engineer, responsible for driving, repairing and maintenance of various fire-fighting devices. Another for her husband, their three adult daughters, eight adopted daughters and five grandchildren. And another to Jesus Christ.
She and Ken are active members of the Church of the Open Door, at Fort Washington, where he served as a deacon. They are also members of Samaritan’s Purse. Co-founded by Franklin Graham, son of the late Christian evangelist Billy Graham, the relief organization provides assistance to those in physical need as part of its missionary work. Kirkner made seven trips to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and regularly makes mission trips to Haiti.
Whether it’s floods or fires, for Kirkner, helping is a calling.
“I do these disaster relief trips because people need help,” she said. “We are to be the hands and feet of Jesus. I want to help.
“I grew up half a mile from that fire company. There were always accidents on York Road. I could hear the sirens while I was in my house. I would go out and watch. When I was 17, I didn’t just want to watch anymore. I wanted to help.
Kirkner is currently a substitute teacher at Centennial School District. She also taught preschool at their church’s Open Door Christian Academy. She also did a six-year stint as a paid firefighter in Northampton. Serve and teach. Then and now. After 40 years. Despite the fires and the horrors and the tears.
Because the desire to help goes beyond everything.
Columnist Phil Gianficaro can be reached at 215-345-3078,[email protected]and @philgianficaro1 on Twitter.