She’s a little kid captivated by flashing firetruck lights. She’s a cross-country transplant. She’s a praise band bass player. All she wants is to be one of the guys. And, someday, she wants to show soccer moms can run headlong into burning buildings, too.
Kayla Markeson, 23, of Lake Wylie isn’t easily defined. But if she had to attempt it, she sure wouldn’t start with girl firefighter.
“You’d be surprised,” said Markeson. “There’s a lot of girls in other departments.”
South Carolina has about 17,000 active firefighters, and fewer than 2,000 of them women. There are about half-dozen female firefighters or recruits in York County.
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“It’s not as uncommon now as it used to be, say 10 years ago,” said Gary Starnes, training officer with the York County Department of Fire Safety.
Across the state line, the Charlotte Fire Department has 1,044 firefighters at 41 stations and 31 are women. They only have a few retired females with 25 years or more on the job.
“It is very common to run into a burning house or help rescue a person from a wrecked car with a female firefighter assigned to that big red truck,” said Capt. Rob Brisley.
Despite the trend of seeing more female firefighters, only close to 10 percent of active firefighters in South Carolina are women.
“It’s pretty uncommon,” said Jason Pope, deputy director with the South Carolina State Firefighters’ Association. “It’s a low percentage.”
In York County, which has about 350 active volunteers plus paid departments, it isn’t easy getting exact numbers on female firefighters. Partly because volunteer departments aren’t looking for genders, just volunteers.
“They want to help the community just like anybody else would,” Starnes said of female volunteers, “and that’s just their chosen way of doing it.”
Climbing the ladder
Despite quizzical looks she gets when she takes off her helmet at a scene, it isn’t Markeson’s gender that sets her apart as much as the pace at which she’s scaling the volunteer ranks. She arrived from her native Seattle three years ago. Six months later she joined the Bethel department.
“It turned out to be a passion, and I haven’t looked back since,” Markeson said.
In 2013, she won Rookie of the Year. In 2014, she earned the department’s top honor as Firefighter of the Year.
“She’s absolutely excelled in her level of training,” said Chief Michael Laws. “That’s a big accomplishment for someone who works 40 hours a week and does this on the side. Not to mention she’s tough.”
Markeson took a year getting to the level where she’s stood alongside Laws and others battling flames from the inside.
“As a young firefighter, she stands apart because she’s more willing to listen,” Laws said. “Most young people are more willing to talk.”
Markeson also has mentors. Chief Laws earned 2014 York County Firefighter of the Year honors from the Board of Rural Fire Control in January. Capt. Scott Boyd won it in 2012.
Markeson says she has an advantage compared to other volunteers, too. She lives minutes from her work and the fire station. Plus, she is “not anywhere near that crossroads” of having her own family and children to slow down her training schedule.
“As a volunteer, it’s more what can you do?” she said. “Classes are at night, on the weekends.”
Call to challenge
Bethel had at least two female firefighters among its about 50 members before Markeson, including one she served alongside who since moved to Charleston. So, apart from fitting in both with Bethel volunteers and its auxiliary comprised largely of volunteers’ wives, gender isn’t a big deal. There were bigger culture shocks.
Markeson remembers her first meeting opening with prayer.
“To me that’s huge,” she said. “I said, ‘Holy smokes, welcome to the South.’”
A physical therapist assistant when she isn’t on fire calls, Markeson has plenty in common with her brothers in the department. It takes a different type of person to run toward danger. Volunteers, especially, often are geared toward excitement and community service.
“For me it was a little bit of both,” Markeson said. “I wouldn’t say I’m a thrill-seeker, but I like things that give you a challenge.”
Markeson has firefighting roots in her family tree. An uncle was a volunteer. A grandfather fought flames in the military.
She also sees the faces of people losing homes and understands those moments looking for pieces of memories to salvage. She said her family doesn’t know how old her grandmother is because records burned in a house fire generations ago.
But, from the first call, Markeson felt the rush of trying to help. She felt it when volunteers found an unscathed Bible in an otherwise lost house, and in many moments like it.
“I was just like, alright goosebumps, here we go,” she said.
But for all her effort showing she’s one of the guys, one of Markeson’s favorite things is to be noticed in her uniform by a young girl.
“They get these little awestruck eyes,” she said.
Still Markeson isn’t interested in being the poster child for female empowerment any more than she’s interested in driving out to haul a tree branch from the road in the middle of the night. But some parts of the job are less glamorous than others, and she’ll do her part. Any of the boys would.
“They’re the best,” she said. “These guys really are my brothers.”