By Pete Soyer
Female firefighters are not common in Montana, but there have been some who braved the fires and the physical demands to become a member of a fire department.
A newspaper story that circulated statewide Tuesday said Helena is in the position, after three women passed the Montana Firefighter Testing Consortium test, to hire the first female firefighter to work for a city fire department in state history.
Gretchen Rowin, however, passed all of the physical tests required back in 1983 and went on to work for the Havre Fire Department until 1985.
Rowin was the first and only female firefighter Havre has had.
Rowin said she had just come off of a 12-hour shift, went home, dressed up, threw on high heels and went to the fire department to see about the job offering. When she got there she found out that she wasn't dressed appropriately for what she had to do. She went home and changed again.
"I had to suit up and carry 50 pounds of hose on my shoulder," Rowin said. While carrying the hose and a fire axe in the other hand, Rowin had to climb up and down a fire ladder. She also had to grab the end of a fire hose and run until the entire hose was uncoiled. A third test she had to pass was running around the block where the fire department stands, carrying a hose clamp that weighed between 20 and 25 pounds. There were many other tests too. On top of everything else, the tests were timed. Rowin completed them in the time allotted to be considered for a job at the fire department.
Rowin said she wasn't in real good shape at the time, but she passed all of the tests and became Havre's first female firefighter. She said that after the tests she started working out regularly and taking aerobics classes to stay in shape.
The testing in Havre was only the beginning of tests though.
After Rowin started, she went to smoke school in Great Falls, where she had to drag a 300-pound man from a smoke-filled building. She first had to find him with no visibility.
"I couldn't see, period."
Along with other tests she finally got the oral interview that comes with most jobs. There were some questions as to how a woman would fit in at a male-dominated fire department. Being the only female in a group of males didn't come without some reservations, Rowin said.
Everyone had reservations because it's physically demanding work, Rowin said. James Cowan, who was the department's fire chief at the time, told Rowin to be sincere in what she did.
"He was a great guy," she said. But she also said it took about six months before the rest of the department realized she could pull her own weight.
"There were a few that had some reservations and even a wife that didn't want me there," she said, "but my husband had to put up with all the jokes too." The sleeping arrangements had to be reorganized and a privacy curtain was put up around the beds so that each firefighter had some privacy.
No matter what ideas anyone had about Rowin's place in the department, when they went out on a call they all had to work together as a team, Rowin said.
"I miss it. The guys were like my brothers," she said, "I still have a lot of respect for them."
She said she felt proud to be the first woman firefighter in Havre, but she knew women in Montana had been fighting fires in rural areas for a long time. The volunteer fire departments around the state have "mothers with jobs" fighting fires, Rowin said.
Rowin said that since she grew up in Havre one of the hardest aspects of the job was seeing the children of friends die in automobile accidents. Dragging someone out of a car wreck is physically and emotionally draining, she said. But she also took good memories away from the job as well.
Rowin fought fires with the Havre Fire Department for about three years before she quit to have a child.
She said her job with the Havre Fire Department "was the most challenging and rewarding career of my life."