- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - At the age of 10, Rachel Van Beek was driving tractors at her home farm in Iowa. Now, 22 years later, she’s driving fire trucks through the streets of Sioux Falls.

Van Beek is one of about 40 with the Sioux Falls Fire Department charged with the responsibility of getting firefighters where they need to be quickly, accurately and safely.

And of those 40, Van Beek is the only woman, the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/296VkTy ) reported.

Van Beek was promoted to fire apparatus operator June 6, after an application process requiring knowledge of over 2,000 pages of study material, a driving test and an interview. As the driver, Van Beek is responsible for the truck itself, making sure all the equipment works and ensuring it gets fixed when something breaks. She’s also in charge of the water used in fighting fires: how much of it to use, where to hook up the truck to a hydrant, how much water pressure the situation needs.

When a call comes in and the firefighters run to their gear, Van Beek runs to the map, finding the quickest route to their destination. She opens up the station overhead door, starts up the truck, switches on the lights and makes sure firefighters are buckled in. She weaves the 24- to 48-foot truck through traffic, holding the power to flip a switch that can change any stoplight to green.

“It’s pretty cool,” Van Beek said about getting to drive a fire truck. “It’s a lot bigger than your typical car, so it takes a little while to get used to. It’s a challenge, but it’s worth it.”

Van Beek was one of 22 to apply for the position, said division chief Brad Goodroad. Thirteen passed the application process, but only six got offered the position.

“Rachel ranked third overall,” Goodroad said. “It’s quite an accomplishment, especially so young.”

Van Beek joined Sioux Falls Fire Rescue in 2011. She started the application process in March of 2009 after Sioux Falls Fire Chief Jason Sideras was a guest lecturer at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, where she studied to be a paramedic.

“I thought, I’ll just apply and see what happens. And here we are,” she said.

The thought of being a woman in a typically male-dominated profession didn’t intimidate Van Beek. The only time she said she really thought about it was when she first started.

“A lot of times, if we were in a class or training, I’d look and see, oh, I’m the only girl here today,” she said. “But I don’t think about it too much. I’m just part of the group. It’s nothing that usually crosses my mind.”

Van Beek is also part of the fire department’s diversity and inclusion committee and is involved in recruiting efforts, going to outreach events with college students.

She thinks the efforts are helping the department recruit, but the main question she gets from women is: Is the job too physically taxing?

“It is a physically demanding job,” she said. “If it’s something they want to do or want to be involved in, absolutely they should (apply). I think a lot of girls don’t know that this is a job possibility for them. I think a lot of them are scared of the physical aspect of it. If you work at it, take the time and effort, you can do it.”

Van Beek is one of four women in the Sioux Falls Fire Department and is often the only woman on her shift. She said she would like to see more women in the department, but also said she doesn’t feel singled out simply because she’s a woman.

“The job isn’t for everybody, guys or girls,” she said. “It’s a challenge.But it’s a good job male or female. (The men) don’t treat you any differently than they treat any of the guys. The physical aspects intimidate some people, but stick with it. Be determined and hardworking.”

Van Beek stuck with it through hours of studying and training. Now, she said driving the fire truck down the road is “pretty cool.”

“When (all the cars) move out of the way for you, and you get the whole road to yourself, that’s pretty cool,” she laughed. “You get to get going and people get out of your way.”

While flashing the lights, honking the horn, changing the stoplights and parting the sea of cars all are job perks, Van Beek said none of those make up for her favorite part of the job.

“The people,” she said. “The people I get to work with, and the people we get to help are what make me want to do this.”

And as for any little girls out there who want to be a firefighter when they grow up, Van Beek said:

“Be dedicated to it. It can get overwhelming at times, so have (people) to go to. You have to be patient. It’s definitely worth it, but at the time (you’re applying), you’re wondering if it’s ever going to happen. In the end it’s worth it, so stick with it.”

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

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