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Women at work: Aiming to blaze a trail in firefighting

With a bachelor’s in biology, Loné Williams, 28, was teaching middle-schoolers in Sauk Village when she decided to change careers.

Now, Williams is helping blaze a trail with the Chicago Fire Department, where women account for just 139 of the city’s roughly 4,100 firefighters — 3.4 percent. Nationally, the figure is 5.7 percent, according to the Labor Department.

Williams, a firefighter EMT, has been on the job about nine months.

Starting pay for firefighters in Chicago is about $54,000 a year, and top scale is $102,750 after 30 years with the department.

Requirements include passing a physical ability test — while wearing a 50-pound vest. Designed to mimic the challenges firefighters face, it includes a three-minute stair climb while loaded with an extra 25 pounds; dragging a 200-foot hose line; using a sledgehammer to simulate making a forcible building entry; crawling through a tunnel maze of obstacles with dead ends; and dragging a 165-pound mannequin 35 feet.

“I love my career,” says Williams, who taught science at Rickover Junior High School in Sauk Village, “ . . . no matter how dangerous it is.”

What drives her, she says, is “to help people and be there when people are going through some of the worst things you can possibly go through.”

Catherine “Cat” Renar, 55, is in her 15th year with the department, promoted last year to engineer, meaning her duties include driving the engine. A midlife crisis led her to firefighting after 10 years in marketing and advertising.

“It gives me a sense of purpose, of completion,” she says of firefighting.

Chicago firefighter Catherine "Cat" Renar | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

Chicago firefighter Catherine “Cat” Renar | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

The work hours — 24 hours on, then 48 off — appealed to Janine Wade-Johnson, 51.

“We work about 88 days a year,” says Johnson, whose daughters were 4 and 13 when she started. “For raising my family, my girls, that was really good.”

When Wade-Johnson entered the academy two decades ago, she was one of only three women in a class of 120.

“I stepped into a world that I knew nothing of,” says Wade-Johnson, whose responsibilities include handling communications at fires. “It was paramilitary, a lot of commands. It was physically challenging.

“I wasn’t caring if anyone liked me. My ultimate goal was my girls — a better way of living for them.”

For rookie Williams, the duties vary.

“You could be on the water hose, or you could be the person that connects the hydrant, making sure you get water,” she says. “You could be making sure no kinks are in the hose.”

She hasn’t forgotten her first time entering a burning house, adrenaline pumping: “It seemed like I was in a movie.”

After the fire was out, Williams, who has a 4-year-old son, remembers thinking: “ ‘Did I just go in to that burning building with no problem?’ The guys said I didn’t hesitate.

“I’ve got to get the job done. If this was my family, I’d want whoever was there to put the fire out, to handle their business.”

The work environment sometimes requires a thick skin, according to Wade-Johnson.

“Don’t let people push your buttons,” she says. “Some people accept you, and some won’t. Have a positive mind. Don’t come on the job thinking somebody owes you.”

The women say they’ve learned from supportive mentors, male and female.

“I was fortunate to have some awesome chiefs,” Renar says. “They impressed upon us the importance of heart, a passion for what we do that supersedes brute strength. . . . And mental strength and tenacity are essential.”

There are still barriers for women, says Candice McDonald, a board member with the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Service.

“Some departments are not as accepting of women,” McDonald says.

Attorney Marni Willenson represented women in two class-action lawsuits that accused the Chicago department of discriminating against women with the physical performance test used in firefighter selection. One case was settled in 2013. The other awaits final approval. As a result of those suits, the city replaced its old physical test with one used by fire departments across the country that more closely approximates firefighters’ duties.

Women who were a part of the suits and still met the department’s age requirements were allowed to reapply. Twenty-nine from the first settlement are now firefighters. Three more are completing training. About 40 from the second settlement are doing the physical training and testing required before entering the academy.

Williams says someone once told her she had a man’s job. She doesn’t see it that way.

“I look at it as a career and a job that has to be done,” she says.