The Port of Seattle is celebrating Women’s History Month by recognizing and honoring women who are redefining women’s roles in traditionally male-dominated industries.
Growing up, Austen Stutsman never would have imagined she’d be a firefighter. As a physical therapy grad student, on a whim she applied to be a volunteer at a local fire department and hasn’t looked back since. After balancing her love for fire service and physical therapy for a while, Stutsman made the switch to a fulltime career as a firefighter at the Port of Seattle three years ago. Today when she’s not responding to fire calls or teaching CPR, she spends much of her free time volunteering at camps across the country aimed at introducing young women to careers in fire service. She serves as president of the nonprofit organization, Camp Blaze, a week-long leadership camp for women aged 16-19, hosted by female firefighters in a fire camp setting.
We sat down with Stutsman to talk about her path toward becoming a firefighter, what she loves about her job, what it’s like to be a woman in a traditionally male career field, and how she’s working to inspire other young women to pursue a career in the fire service.
Tell me about your background. How did you end up as a firefighter?
I used to have a family friend who would tell us stories as a kid. He was a captain at Puget Sound (Fire Department). I didn't think much about it at the time because like most women I didn’t grow up seeing other women in the fire service. I didn’t realize it was even an option. So I didn’t arrive at the fire service until I went to grad school, and I was getting my degree in physical therapy. I saw an ad for a fire department that was looking for volunteers. I thought ‘This could be fun. Why not? Let’s just try it out and see what happens.’ I volunteered three years while I was in grad school, and when I went on to a post-doctorate residency, I volunteered two more years. When I moved back to Washington state and I worked and volunteered and loved it so much, that when the opportunity came up to make this my full-time career I thought ‘Why not?’ It’s been a really great road. and I wouldn’t change anything.
How does your background in physical therapy connect with your career as a fire fighter?
I’m a physical therapist and my specialty is in sports physical therapy, so I have worked a lot on the field with sports teams with injuries that happened right there in front of you. It’s the same sort of thing here. We get to be the first people that arrive when an injury happens or when someone is sick. It’s all about problem solving. My degree in physical therapy has really helped me have the background in anatomy and physiology, to be really excellent at the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) component in particular, so it makes it really fun to go out and pinpoint what part of the ankle is broken, not just that someone hurt their ankle, and have a little bit more in-depth knowledge of what is going on. I’m able to have better conversations with the patient about what the best outcome is going to be, what they need, and what the best care is at this stage.
What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
The sense of purpose is big for me. You get to come to work each day and make a difference; even if it’s small it feels like it is impacting society in some positive way. It feels like the hours I put in have more value than just a salary I take home. I show up every day and get to be active and move around. I get to spend time with people who have become my best friends. Who gets to say that about their work place?
What is challenging about being a woman in a traditionally male career?
Twelve percent of Port of Seattle firefighters are women, which is well above the national average of three to four percent, but here it means two out of 17 firefighters on shift are women, if that. I was down in Los Angeles for one of the camps I volunteer at for women interested in firefighting careers and a fire chief and assistant fire chiefs, who were men, were addressing the group of women eating lunch. They looked a little uncomfortable and when I asked them about it, they told me it was really strange to be surrounded by women. That is our every day. As a woman in this field, regardless of your intentions you are always representing your gender. When you come to work it’s important to be better so guys can see that ladies can be successful. One day women will be able to come to work and be seen as the same. We aren’t there yet but we are getting there.
Tell me more about Camp Blaze and how that organization lifts up women interested in careers in fire service.
Every two years young women from all over the country come to the Pacific Northwest to attend Camp Blaze. In a fire camp setting, women have an opportunity to come and meet other ladies and try new things in a judgement-free zone. Statistically women join fire service later in life. Women tend to join in their 30s, and men join in their 20s. We take girls with some leadership experience but not a lot of exposure to the fire service, and help them put the pieces together to learn that this a career they could be successful in.
What skills or traits are needed in the firefighter profession?
As a firefighter, you need good communications skills. You are in a communication, public safety, and customer service role. You are communicating with people who might be upset. Something may have happened with travel plans, or they might be sick. As a firefighter, you are committing to a life of learning. You are never going to stop learning new things. You need to be flexible and adaptable and willing to try new things. You also need a touch of bravery. You are going into scenarios where people aren’t having great days, and entering hazardous environment where there can be risk to life.
What do you love about working at the Port?
I love learning about aircraft, and how that side of things work. When you’re boarding an airplane for vacation travel, you don’t get to do that. At the airport, the population turns over every day. We’re the same population of a medium-sized city, but every day is a different day. It makes it fun. It’s not the same addresses, same people, or same health issues and it really does challenge critical thinking.
Meet other members of the Port of Seattle Fire Department