These crews are not boy’s clubs

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For many female firefighters, work runs in the family

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP -- When 19-year-old Kristen Kolondra fights fires, she's does so alongside several of her family members.

A lot of her family is involved with the Rio Grande Fire Co. That's why she joined five years ago.

"It's in my blood," Kolondra said.

While area fire companies are still dominated by men, some women are bucking the trend. Rio Grande and Goshen volunteer fire companies each have three female firefighters.

All told, the Rio Grande Fire Co. has 40 members, and the Goshen Volunteer Fire Co. has around 20.

"You just feel like one of the guys. Nothing different really, just different bathrooms [at the station]," Kolondra said, laughing.

And battling fires with family members doesn't affect their work, she said.

"We just watch each other's backs," Kolondra said.

She remembers battling a fire that damaged the Mariner's Landing Pier on the Wildwood Boardwalk in 2008.

As the firefighters crossed the bridge to the barrier island, she could see flames.

"This is big," she said.

When Helen Graham became a member of the Rio Grande Fire Co. 13 years ago, she figures the volunteer organization had eight women firefighters.

Now's there's only three.

The decline is not only for women but men as well. The volunteers have limited time, jobs and more, she said.

Graham used to be a firefighter in Delaware County, Pa., for five years, where there had been three women in the company.

The 57-year-old said she has learned more with the Rio Grande company than the one in Pennsylvania, including extricating people from vehicles and about the ladder truck.

"Down here in Rio Grande, we do everything," she said.

Graham is vice president of the south region of the Fire Service Women of New Jersey.

Her son, Howard Graham Jr., followed in his mother's footsteps in becoming a firefighter, she said.

Mandy Smearman, 36 has been a firefighter at the Rio Grande company for just over a year. Her husband, Steven, became a firefighter in 1998.

"It kind of was a challenge," she said.

She wasn't sure if she would be able to meet the responsibilities of being a firefighter. Now she feels accomplished, Smearman said.

She was among Rio Grande Fire Co. members who went to Long Beach Island at Beach Haven with a tanker truck in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

"It was touching in a way," Smearman said.

The company didn't have to fight any fires.

The Goshen Volunteer Fire Co. also has three women firefighters. There are three contributing members as well, who bring water to the scene and do other tasksbut are not firefighters.

One of the firefighters is fire company Capt. Autumn Shaw, 26. She joined the fire company because of her brother, assistant chief Tom Shaw Jr., and father, fire company engineer Tom Shaw Sr.

She said she’s been part of the fire company for about 7 ½ years

“You definitely worry more about fire safety,” Shaw said.

She also said she’s able to meet people.

“It’s definitely like a family away from your family,” Shaw said.

Shaw’s aunt and mother are contributing members at the Goshen fire company. Nancy Shaw-Livingston, 42, said her family prompted her to join and she became a member four years ago. She serves as the secretary.

Dawn Shaw, 55, has been a member for five years. Shaw said she hopes the community sees the fire company as a need and not as a set of dollar signs.

“I thought it was nice to do some community work,” said 71-year-old Claudette Deschatelets.

She has been a contributing member for about 12 years and is the treasurer. Her husband, Denis, is also a Goshen fire company firefighter.

Goshen Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Frank Svitak said all of the fire company members work together.

 “It’s is about getting the job done,” said Rio Grande Fire Co. Chief Richard Sweeten.


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