Tuesday she collapsed in laughter as she struggled to roll a hose up for storage. Any of her classmates would admit it isn't easy to direct the high pressure hoses, learn to identify and use all the equipment on the ladder truck, or master the medical knowledge necessary to function as a paramedic.
A new volunteer on the Rossford Fire Department, she acknowledges that her gender differentiates her in the male-dominated field she plans to balance with her college studies in special educa-tion at the University of Toledo.
Michael Dobrosky, left, of the Woodville Fire Department, helps pull a hose into position during the training session.
"I've always thought it was a male profession, but I thought, 'Screw that, I want to do this,' " Ms. Wagner said, earning a high five and approving "Yea!" from Maumee Fire Department rookie Jennifer Harrison.
Four females were among the 20 rookie firefighters in the Basic Firefighter Certification held in Rossford this week - an unusually high proportion of women for one of these sessions, said Kerry Fisher, assistant director of program development for the State Fire School at Bowling Green State University.
"If we have 500 participants, we might have 10 female," she said, adding it is unclear whether the higher proportion of women signals a shrinking gender disparity.
All of the course participants in the local volunteer fire departments endured a rigorous timed physical examination already, which included climbing a ladder to a rooftop in full gear with a 20-pound fire hose over one shoulder, and knocking a sledge hammer against a railroad tie 50 times, course participants said.
Rossford fire Chief Jim Verbosky, lead instructor of the Basic Firefighter Certification this week, said most volunteer departments in Ohio like his have a manpower shortage despite actively recruiting candidates regardless of gender.
"All of the departments in this area are hurting for people," Chief Verbosky said. "Some can't make the commitment, and it's still very dangerous work."
The U.S. Census of 2000 estimated that 3.7 percent of firefighters nationwide were female.
At least 17 percent of women in the American work force are working full time in one of 184 other professions requiring similar strength, endurance, and risk as firefighting, according to the National Report Card on Women in Firefighting released in 2008 by International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services.
The State Fire Marshal's office does not keep statistics on how many of the 43,000 volunteer and paid firefighters in Ohio are female, department spokesman Matt Mullins said.
Rossford fire Chief James Verbosky, left, shows Rossford volunteer firefighter Sarah Wagner how to use a 13/4-inch hose during the State Fire School at Rossford Marina-Veterans Park.
Ms. Harrison, 27, a rookie volunteer firefighter from Maumee, didn't see many women in the profession she's dreamed of pursuing since childhood. She hopes to trade her former job as a preschool teacher at a local daycare for firefighting full time.
"Its kind of a strange transition, going from working with kids to a department of grown men, but then again, there are a lot of similarities there," Ms. Harrison said, laughing.
Family has supported her career change, she said.
"My parents think it's the coolest thing since sliced bread," Ms. Harrison said. "It's been nothing but how proud they are of me for going after this. It took me a long time to get here."
Contact Bridget Tharp at: