For the first time, an all-women firefighter lineup will be marching down the streets of Edgartown with the 1855 Lysander Button Company fire engine during the Fourth of July parade, which is coming back after a two-year hiatus.
According to Edgartown Deputy Fire Chief Andrew Kelly, the fire engine was a part of the Fourth of July parade since it was purchased in 1855, with only a couple of absences. “It’s always been like a rite of passage here for Edgartown,” Kelly said.
“Usually we run the Button tub with newer members of the Edgartown Fire Department. Actually, a mix of veterans and younger members,” Edgartown Fire Capt. Kara Shemeth said. “This year, we had enough to do an all-women group from all over the Island.”
Firefighting has been a male-dominated field, both on the Island and nationally. Despite an increase in women’s participation, only a collective 4 percent of U.S. career and volunteer firefighters were women in 2020, according to estimates from the National Fire Protection Association. On Martha’s Vineyard, the collective count of active firefighters from each department added up to 164 members (range: 11 firefighters in Aquinnah to 36 firefighters in Tisbury), of which 19 firefighters are women (11.6 percent).
Fortunately, the women who spoke with The Times said their departments were accommodating to them.
“I feel like the department has been very welcoming, helping me learn and actually even grow stronger in the area of firefighting,” Edgartown firefighter Vanessa Vacharasovan said. She is one of the newer members of the department. “I feel very comfortable and honored to work with all of the men and women in this department.”
Fellow Edgartown firefighter Morgan Vincent said the Island has “a wonderful diversity” that allows for the various departments to have as many women volunteer and full-time firefighters as they do. Additionally, Vincent told The Times that historically, volunteer-based departments were more open to women members.
“It’s also been interesting to educate the public on a woman’s place in the fire departments all around,” Vincent said. “Some individuals from older generational stereotypes don’t always understand why we do what we do, and I think it’s a great opportunity to educate the public in many ways, of course, but especially that women can also do firefighting and have a place on the team, and are appreciated and welcomed on the team. Especially on the Island.”
Tisbury firefighter Jessica von Mehren said she works in landscaping, so she was already accustomed to working in an environment dominated by men.
“Being on the fire department has been less of a challenge than working has been, for sure,” Von Mehren said. “One of my best friends asked me to join up, and I walked right in, and it was great. I loved it from the very beginning.”
Chilmark Fire Lt. Christina Colarusso said she joined firefighting by accident. She was trained as a shipboard marine engineer, another male-dominant field, but had “bad experiences” during some of her training.
“When I moved to the Island full-time, I wanted to help out. In Chilmark, we have such a small department, but we have four women out of only like 20 [members], so that’s actually a pretty good percentage,” Colarusso said. “It’s fairly rewarding to help the community and to give back, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. They’ve been so welcoming.”
A number of the firefighters The Times spoke with also had a family member who preceded them in firefighting. Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation firefighter Karen Lothrop’s grandfather was the Avon Fire Department’s chief, and her father was the fire chief in Nelson, N.H. Vincent grew up watching her father volunteer as a firefighter in Warren, R.I. 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 from my family to join the same fire department. I’m like the fifth generation to join Chilmark,” Emma Mayhew said.
The women had some advice for other women considering joining their local fire department: “Just do it.”
“Come knock on any of the department’s doors, and just say hi,” Vincent said. “And the fire family is so wonderful.”
Shemeth told The Times once someone puts on the firefighter uniform, it does not matter what race or gender that person is, as long as the job can be done.
“Our numbers are low. They’re low all over the county. Not just women, everyone. If anybody has ever thought, ‘Huh, I wonder if I can do that,’ you can, and you should. In this day and age, there’re so many things dividing us. With firefighting and EMS, you’re there to help. There’s nothing divisive about it. You’re there to lend a hand when somebody needs it most,” she said.
The Fourth of July parade will begin at 5 pm.