Female Firefighters Prove Anyone Can Fight Fires

As female firefighters in a male-dominated field, Antoinette Dowds and Joelle Lesniak believe anyone can be a firefighter.

Lesniak, one of the three full-time career firefighters at Centre Square Fire Company, was the first female volunteer firefighter at Oreland Fire Company at age 16.

“I broke the system,” said Lesniak. “A lot of fire companies used to have bylaws that said women could not volunteer.”

Lesniak has been working at Centre Square Fire Company since 2000, and currently serves as a Captain, firefighter and paramedic. At Oreland Fire Company, she is also a Captain and volunteer.

“No one is the wrong age, gender or race to join our team,” said Dowds, who has been a volunteer firefighter at Centre Square for five years now.

Size also doesn’t matter to succeed as a firefighter. Lesniak has a small stature at 5-foot-1, but doesn’t let size stop her from doing her job.

“If it’s in your heart, you can make a difference,” said Lesniak. “It’s all about where your passion falls. Anyone can do this.”

Although size doesn’t matter, strength is necessary to wear the gear and use the equipment.

“You have to know your limits and what you can and can’t do, and understand your strengths and weaknesses,” said Lesniak.

Emotional strength is vital to firefighting as well. It helps Lesniak and Dowds go into dangerous situations with the right headspace to protect and serve others, and comfort the community in need. Ultimately, Dowds encourages other women to just do it.

“Firefighting should be an inspiration for all women, younger or older, everywhere, to demonstrate the value of strength and courage,” said Dowds.

Firefighting is more accepting for women now than it used to be. When Lesniak first joined Oreland, she had to build up rapport and trust with her fellow firefighters. Once she earned their trust, she still had to earn the trust of other fire companies as well.

“When we went on mutual aid calls, firefighters didn’t know if they could trust me,” she said. “There was a cloud over my head until I proved myself.”

After proving that firefighters could count on Lesniak and rely on her, they started accepting her at most calls.

“I feel like one of the guys and part of the team,” she said.

Lesniak earned a degree in elementary education, but when she couldn’t get a teaching job, she decided to pursue a career in the other field she loved: firefighting and ems.

Her dad was a Philadelphia police officer and she also volunteered at Springfield Ambulance with him, which is how she got into the paramedic side of emergency services.

“He always had a passion for emergency services and that passion rubbed off on me,” she said. “Anytime you can save a life, that’s a memorable call.”

Lesniak works four, 10-hour shifts at Centre Square Fire Company. While she does respond to fire and ems calls, her job entails much more.

“We’re not just sitting there waiting for calls,” she said. “We have various tasks throughout the day.”

Every Monday, the career staff check the trucks to make sure they are in ready status. Lesniak makes sure supplies are up to date and writes grants for the fire company, which requires a lot of research. She and her co-workers are also in charge of a lot of training and they are currently training two interns.

During the day, Dowds works as a certified nurse practitioner and a certified EMT. She works for the Commonwealth of PA, caring for 171 veterans, is a provider in the emergency room four days per month and also works at CHOP three evenings per week.

“I serve as a servant leader in my current profession and wanted to give back to the community,” said Dowds. “I decided to join Centre Square because I have always been an incredibly compassionate person, serving others and helping those in need and in danger, more than my self-interest.”

Dowds’ medical knowledge is helpful when responding to calls and Centre Square’s team of volunteers brings a variety of experience and expertise from their various professions.

No prior experience is required to volunteer. Centre Square Fire Company provides all volunteers with training and gear to be ready to respond to any type of emergency.

“I enjoy the training and education that is provided by the fire company, which keeps all firefighters up to date, and in good physical and mental condition,” she said. “Monday night drills help to keep us on our toes.”

When Centre Square responds to a fire, Dowds says that not all firefighters are on the ladder or in the building. Some can serve as ground crew to refresh air tanks, carry ladders, account for those who enter and exit the fire ground, and acquire equipment for other firefighters as needed.

“The entire team is fierce and brave, and devote their time to ensure a level playing field and strong bonds and relationships among volunteers,” said Dowds. “As a result, more is accomplished for the best possible outcome in every situation.”

With only three career members, Centre Square Fire Company needs more volunteers to serve and protect the more than 20,000 residents of Whitpain Township. In addition to volunteer firefighters like Dowds, Centre Square also needs 16 and 17-year-olds to serve as junior firefighters, fire police to control traffic at the scene of incidents and administrative members to work behind the scenes.

To learn more or sign up to volunteer at Centre Square Fire Company, visit CentreSquareFire.org.