- Associated Press - Sunday, September 27, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Jeanne Pashalek remembers her first “code,” arriving at a house where a man, a big man, lay on the floor, not breathing.

She did the chest compressions while others hooked up the equipment, and one man calmed relatives and got information from them.

Of course she remembers her first fire — a house fire in southwest Lincoln.

“No one forgets their first fire,” she said.

After the fire was out, they were putting plastic over the windows to seal the house off from the weather. Another firefighter was holding a wooden strip. “He said, ‘hammer here.’ And I hit his finger.”

And Pashalek, the third woman hired as a Lincoln firefighter and the first to become an officer, remembers the fire at the Lincoln Public Schools district office — “the sheer magnitude of it.”

She was Battalion Chief Pashalek that day in 2011 when the school district’s administrative offices burned, the costliest fire in Lincoln’s — and perhaps the state’s — history, the Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/1OwaIcj ) reported.

Pashalek also remembers the camaraderie of a second family: her work family.

Early in her career, a favorite older firefighter stopped the truck in the middle of a major intersection, turned to her and said, “Get up here and drive.”

Although she had driven stick shifts her entire life, she’d never driven a fire truck and was very obviously panicked. “And he has never let me forget it.”

She also remembers when a very old-school captain brought her cherries — assuming every woman could bake a cherry pie.

Pashalek didn’t dream of being a firefighter growing up. She just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

She was looking around for a job that would be meaningful and interesting. Maybe something in health care, she thought.

A good friend recommended she try out for the fire department. She took the test on a whim, got a high score and was hired in 1990.

And the job suited her.

“You are not always behind a desk, and not doing the same thing every day. That fit my personality,” she said.

The work itself — helping people in some of life’s worst moments — was rewarding. And the adrenalin rush when the disciplined training was put to use was always exciting.

And being a firefighter turned out to be more of a health profession than she expected at the time since many calls are for health emergencies, not fires, and since she became a paramedic and then an EMS supervisor.

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At the beginning of this month, 25½ years after joining the department, Pashalek retired as Lincoln Fire and Rescue’s highest ranking woman. And she was still a small minority — 17 of the 225 Lincoln firefighters, or 7.5 percent, are female, based on 2014 year-end numbers.

The department wasn’t prepared for having women in its ranks in 1990, Pashalek recalls.

It had no firefighter gear that fit a 5-foot-6, 125-pound person.

LFR first issued Pashalek gear used by a much larger woman who had left the department, she said.

At the time, no one manufactured gear designed to fit women, she said, and even today, no one makes gloves with the finger-to-palm ratio most common to women.

LFR still doesn’t order gear designed specifically for women, but women on the force do have better fitting gear than in the early days, she said.

When she started, Pashalek said, there were no separate bathroom quarters.

“We shared the restrooms and locker rooms and there were no locks on the doors. There was a sign to make sure you knocked.”

That wasn’t such a big change for Pashalek, who grew up with two older brothers.

Today, she said, all fire stations have separate bathrooms but most are “woefully inadequate — so small that you can sit on the toilet and turn on the shower.”

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Pashalek worked her way up through LFR ranks: hired in 1990, a paramedic in 1996, captain in 1999, EMS supervisor in 2001, battalion chief in 2007.

She was a go-getter, said former Fire Chief Mike Merwick, always volunteering, trying to better herself and the department.

The journey wasn’t always smooth.

Pashalek’s promotion to be the department’s first female officer met resistance. She was the only female officer from 1999 to 2014, and in 2008, five male firefighters sued over her promotion to deputy chief, contending Pashalek was unfairly promoted.

The firefighters later asked the case be dismissed because the complaint could be viewed as too subjective to be ruled upon in a courtroom setting.

Last year, Pashalek was one of several leaders in the department accused of retaliating against a firefighter who had filed an equal opportunity complaint.

The city official in charge of investigating workplace discrimination said the leaders did retaliate after the firefighter reported a recruit was abused during training, and disciplinary actions against the whistleblower were dropped.

In April, Public Safety Director Tom Casady said he had ordered fire chiefs to attend a seminar on retaliation and planned to create a task force to look at training and discipline.

In May, Casady wrote a letter saying he doesn’t believe there is conclusive evidence of any retaliatory motive by Pashalek and no basis for any discipline against her.

But the issue took a toll, and Pashalek said she retired six months earlier than planned because work was no longer fun. She was spending too much time in a negative environment. It was time to join her husband in retirement, she said.

Former Chief Niles Ford, now fire chief in Baltimore, Maryland, described Pashalek as “one of the superstars.”

Ford, who promoted Pashalek to battalion chief, said she was able to see the implications of decisions, not just on fire service but on people and on city government.

Pashalek, who received her master’s degree from Doane College in 2009, said the educational program, particularly the coaching portion, helped her live as gracefully as possible through the turmoil.

She found it is better to move forward positively than to fight back, better to take the high road and focus on what is most important — doing a good job.

Pashalek also learned just how unusual she was while working on a research paper about women leaders in the firefighting world.

It was very hard to find information and accurate data because there were so few women in leadership positions.

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Pashalek hopes her work as the human relations battalion chief has created a foundation that will result in command staff and company officers learning more about employment laws and practices.

Mayor Chris Beutler is looking for a new fire chief, and she hopes whoever he finds can help steer change in LFR’s culture.

She also hopes her persistence on gender issues — working on changing attitudes, language and behavior of a male-dominated workforce — has made it easier for younger women firefighters.

There is more acceptance at the entry level, but there are still men who don’t want a woman boss, she said.

The department has moved somewhat away from the paramilitary macho culture of the past, but a culture of bullying persists, she said.

Pashalek said that while she’d love to see improvement, “it is a good profession. There are a lot of good people.”

___

Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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