For the first time, an all-female lineup of firefighters will parade through the streets of Edgartown with the Lysander Button Company’s 1855 fire engine in the 4th of July Parade, which returns after a two year break.
According to Edgartown Deputy Fire Chief Andrew Kelly, the fire truck had been part of the July 4 parade since it was purchased in 1855, with only a few absences. “It’s always been like a rite of passage here for Edgartown,” Kelly said.
“Usually we run the Button Bath with new members from the Edgartown Fire Department. Basically a mix of veterans and young members,” said Edgartown Fire Captain Kara Shemeth. “This year we had enough to make an all-girl group from all over the island.”
Firefighting is a male-dominated field, both on the island and nationally. Despite an increase in female participation, only 4% of U.S. career and volunteer firefighters were female in 2020, according to National Fire Protection Association estimates. On Martha’s Vineyard, the collective number of active firefighters in each department was 164 members (range: 11 firefighters in Aquinnah to 36 firefighters in Tisbury), of which 19 firefighters are female (11.6%).
Fortunately, the women who spoke to The Times said their departments were accommodating to them.
“I feel like the department has been very welcoming, helped me learn, and even made me stronger in firefighting,” said Edgartown firefighter Vanessa Vacharasovan. She is one of the new members of the department. “I feel very comfortable and honored to work with all the men and women in this department.”
Edgartown firefighter Morgan Vincent said the island has “wonderful diversity” which allows different departments to have as many volunteer, full-time female firefighters as they do. Additionally, Vincent told The Times that historically, volunteer-based departments have been more open to female members.
“It’s also been great to educate the public about the place of women in fire departments all around,” Vincent said. “Some people from older generational stereotypes don’t always understand why we do what we do, and I think this is a great opportunity to educate the public in a number of ways, of course, but more importantly that women can also doing firefighting and having a spot on the team, and are valued and welcomed into the team, especially on the island.
Tisbury firefighter Jessica von Mehren said she worked in landscaping, so she was already used to working in a male-dominated environment.
“Being in the fire department was less difficult than working, that’s for sure,” Von Mehren said. “One of my best friends asked me to join, and I walked in, and it was awesome. I loved it from the start.”
Chilmark Fire Lt. Christina Colarusso said she joined firefighting by accident. She trained as a shipboard marine engineer, another male-dominated field, but had “bad experiences” during some of her training.
“When I moved to the island full time, I wanted to help. At Chilmark we have such a small department but we have four women out of only 20 [members], so it’s actually a pretty good percentage,” Colarusso said. “It’s quite rewarding to help the community and give back, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. They have been so welcoming.
A number of firefighters The Times spoke to also had a family member who had gone before them in fighting the fires. Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation firefighter Karen Lothrop’s grandfather was the chief of the Avon Fire Department, and her father was the fire chief in Nelson, NH Vincent grew up watching his father to volunteer as a firefighter in Warren, RI Shemeth’s grandfather and father were both fire chiefs. in Edgartown. She also has a husband and brother-in-law who are firefighters.
“I’m actually the first female in my family to join the same fire department. I’m like the fifth generation to join Chilmark,” said Emma Mayhew.
The women had some advice for other women considering joining their local fire department: “Just do it.”
“Come knock on any door in the department and just say hello,” Vincent said. “And the fire family is so wonderful.”
Shemeth told The Times that once someone puts on a firefighter’s uniform, it doesn’t matter their race or gender, as long as the job can be done.
“Our numbers are low. They are weak throughout the department. Not just women, everyone. If anyone has ever thought, “Hey, I wonder if I can do this,” you can and you should. There are so many things that divide us these days. With firefighting and EMS, you’re here to help. There is nothing divisive there. You are there to lend a hand when someone needs it most,” she said.
The July 4 parade will start at 5 p.m.