By William Smith
Jessie Teeter, 32, always wanted to be a firefighter.
She just didn’t realize what a rarity that made her. Only about 4 percent of firefighters nationwide are female, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Even her high school guidance counselor suggested she pick another career.
Teeter’s father was a volunteer firefighter for 35 years, and the guidance counselor’s advice did little to undermine Teeter’s confidence.
“Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something. Because they’re wrong,” Teeter said.
Teeter, a seven-year veteran with the Burlington Fire Department, grew up as a firehouse brat. She harbors fond recollections of annual holidays spent with firefighters and their families.
The Bonaparte native belonged there, and not just because she was born into it.
“During high school, I thought, ‘You know what. I think this is my thing,’ ” Teeter said.
Getting In The Door
Desire and fortitude got Teeter into the door — first as an EMT, then as a paramedic and a volunteer firefighter for the West Burlington Fire Department. It was there she fought her first fire, learned the ropes, and built extra muscle to haul around 60 pounds of equipment.
That was about 14 years ago. About seven years after that, Teeter went through more testing and landed a job at the Burlington Fire Department as a firefighter/paramedic.
Teeter’s father lived to see his daughter achieve the success she had been chasing.
“I got the phone call that I was hired a day or two before my dad passed. I got to tell him I got hired, and I made our dream come true. And then he was gone,” Teeter said.
It hurt a lot. So Teeter threw herself into her work to drown out the grief, just like her father would have.
“It was bittersweet,” she said.
An Everyday Firefighter
Teeter is one of three female firefighters at the Burlington Fire Department. The two latest recruits were hired within the past year.
Until recently, Teeter was the only female in the department. She is only the third female firefighter to work at Burlington Fire since the department was founded in 1841.
But Jessie’s just another one of the guys. Her instincts honed by purposefully repetitive training procedures, Teeter gets the same adrenaline rush they do when entering a fire. Muscle memory takes over, and the extra 60 pounds feel like an extension of her body.
“People are having one of the worst days of their lives when we meet them. If we can take their day and make it a little less bad … well, that’s what we’re here for,” Teeter said.
Like any job, most days are far more mundane. False fire alarms. Routine EMS calls. Training. Paperwork. Downtime spent at the station waiting for a call.
When the temperature and wind chills dip to 40 degrees below zero, even the joy of firefighting is doused by never-ending complications. And because people are trying to stay warm, it’s the department’s busiest time of year.
“It’s awful,” Teeter said of fighting fires in frigid weather. “You have to keep your hose on at all times, or it will just instantly freeze. No matter how much clothing you wear, it’s not enough.”
That constant flow creates an unwelcome but unavoidable ice-skating rink for the firefighters, who are usually just grateful the fire hydrant they’re hooking up to isn’t frozen.
“Your hose freezes as soon as you’re done, so you can’t even roll it up. You have to bend it all together like frozen spaghetti,” Teeter said, laughing.
Life Away From The Fire
Teeter’s hobbies are appropriately outdoorsy, given her profession. She loves hiking, camping, kayaking, and exercising in the gym.
“The gym is my stress reliever,” she said.
Her tough exterior does little to hide a tender heart — especially when it comes to animals. She has two rescue dogs in her home, including an Italian mastiff she recently adopted.
“He’s a big boy!” Teeter said, laughing again.
Now, for the first time in her life, Teeter is a mother of three. She and her boyfriend have been dating for about a year. His children — ranging in age from 4 to 14 — are now her children, as she put it.
“So, yeah, now I have three kids,” she said.
Like everything in her life, Teeter is jumping into the deep end and smiling as she does. There is no fear in her eyes, despite the dancing flames they have seen over the years.