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Mother and daughter battle blazes — and stereotypes about firefighting

Jacqueline thought she was too old to become a firefighter. People questioned Jalisa because she’s a woman. So they trained together to beat the odds.

Jacqueline Pinnix was surprised when her daughter told her she wanted to become a firefighter.

Jalisa Pinnix, 28, had never expressed interest in any careers related to the medical or emergency services fields. But growing up, Jalisa always admired her mother, who worked as an EMT. Jalisa used to brag about her mom's job racing across Washington, D.C. in an ambulance. 

The elder Pinnix has always enjoyed caring for others, previously working as a nursing assistant and helping family members when they were ill. She was working on the ambulance when Jalisa first became interested in the field.

But Jalisa, to her mother's surprise, decided to pursue an even more intensive position as a firefighter, which required physical tests and extensive training. Not everyone was convinced it was the right move -- people doubted Jalisa's abilities because of her gender.

“There were a lot of people telling me, 'You shouldn’t be doing firefighting, you’re so small, or you’re a female, there’s a lot of men that do that job,'” she said.

Women like Jalisa are in the minority in the DC Fire and EMS department. Only 188 of the 1,800 firefighters are women, and only 23 serve in officer roles out of 471, according to a department spokesperson. 

But a few female firefighters are starting to move up the ranks in the department. Recently, D.C. Fire and EMS promoted two women to the high-ranking position of battalion chief -- only the third and fourth women in the department’s history to reach that position.

Women firefighters aren't outnumbered just in D.C. Fire departments nationwide are also primarily made up of men. More than 90% of other occupations have more women workers than does firefighting, according to the Women in Fire trade organization.  In 2017, only 4.5% of career firefighters in the U.S. were women, according to a report released in 2019 by the National Fire Protection Association. 

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Many women also face harassment and discrimination in the male-dominated industry. A 2019 study published in the BioMed Research International Journal found that 37.5% of women firefighters had been verbally harassed, and 37.4% had experienced sexual advances.

But after months of training with her mom at the gym, Jalisa beat the status quo when she successfully graduated from firefighting training on Sept. 29, 2017.

"I was excited to see that she wanted to follow in my footsteps," Jacqueline said.

Meanwhile, her daughter's accomplishment caused Jacqueline to consider transferring positions as well. She had run out of opportunities for promotions as an emergency services provider, and the department was encouraging EMTs to advance into firefighting positions.

The move would be a great professional opportunity, but Jacqueline was nervous. At 49, she thought she was too old to go through the training and was worried she would be too scared to run into a fire.

Jalisa told her otherwise.

“I thought I was too scared to become a firefighter, too scared to run into a fire… that’s all I put in my head,” Jacqueline said.

At one point, Jalisa told her mom, “Mom, you can do this, don’t call me until you finish.” The two talk on the phone every day, so Jacqueline knew her daughter meant business.

After training together, Jacqueline passed her physical testing and graduated from training almost exactly a year after her daughter on Sept. 28, 2018.  

Credit: Tegna

“I was shocked that I could even do it,” Jacqueline said.

Today, the two both work for DC Fire and EMS at different engine stations. Both say they've found a strong sense of community among their coworkers. They still talk every day to share stories about work.

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By supporting each other and pushing past their own doubts, Jaqueline and Jalisa are breaking stereotypes about firefighting.  

"I want people to know no matter how old you are, or whatever is going on, you should set goals for yourself... even if people are telling you, 'You're too old to do that,' or 'You're too young to do that,'" Jacqueline said. 

“A lot of females my age, they’re scared for this career, cause they feel like it’s male dominated, so they won’t be able to do it. You can do the same thing any male can do,” Jalisa said.

Credit: Tegna

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