RANSON – Haley Theilgaard remembers her first medical emergency call. It was in October, approaching midnight. The 911 dispatcher relayed that a woman was having trouble breathing.
More veteran medical responders with the Shepherdstown Fire Department were assisting with another medical call. Theilgaard, 21, and another young and newly certified crewmate at the fire station scrambled into an ambulance to help the woman in distress.
On the way, the call for assistance turned into a cardiac arrest.
“We are first on the scene,” Theilgaard recalled. “You know, we are a little panicky.”
But their medical response went smoothly and successfully, she said. She and her crew partner talked over their preparations and roles during their heart-pumping drive to the scene.
Their recent training saw them through. Their patient’s heart rate was stabilized and brought back to normal by the time she arrived at the Jefferson Medical Center in Ranson.
But what remains indelible for Theilgaard about the experience — and how serving as a first responder will likely be a lifelong commitment and a beckoning career for her — was how so many other emergency medical volunteers came to help in the middle of the night too. Some she knew as fellow volunteers, including a mentor. Others she never met before, including someone who drove from Middleway to Shepherdstown to offer any assistance he could.
“They saw it as a person in distress and they dropped everything — and came to that person’s rescue,” Theilgaard said. “It was good teamwork. Everyone stepped up.”
Part of a rising generation of first responders, Theilgaard also represents what appears to be a prominent trend of young women pursuing first-responder careers.
Only a few weeks after earning her certification as an Emergency Medical Technician, she was one of a dozen women who completed their first-level firefighter’s certification in Ranson this past weekend.
Only a single male enrolled in the two-month-long EMT certification class.
Craig Horn, an education and compliance officer for the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency in Ranson, noticed the unmistakable enrollment pattern. He organized and led the class for the agency, as he has for 3 years.
“It is unusual,” he said, recalling when the dozen women showed up for the class kickoff several weeks ago. “They kept walking in the door the first night and I couldn’t believe it.”
The Emergency Services Agency employs 15 female first responders, nearly 25 percent of the agency’s 63 frontline emergency workers. That’s higher than the 17 percent national average of female first responder estimated by the U.S. Labor Department.
Reflecting another nationwide staffing efficiency trend, all of Jefferson County’s staff emergency workers must become certified as both medical responders and firefighters. So as more females seek careers as medical responders, they’re also becoming firefighters almost as often.
The traditional model of 18- to 30-year-old males filling the firefighting ranks is changing, Horn said. Women are creating a more diverse profile for the physically demanding professional field, as they have done in almost every other career path.
“We’re starting to see a new trend where we’re seeing the females,” Horn acknowledged. “It’s great. I think it’s showing that we’re expanding out.”
Horn said he hopes more women continue to expand the pool of recruits to the firefighting field. His experience is that plenty of women can perform the physical demands of the job, from handling bulky and heavy equipment to carrying another person out of a burning building.
“A lot of times they do better than the males do,” Horn said of female firefighters. “They’re a little bit more methodical and evaluate things a little bit more and ask questions rather than jumping into something, which is a good thing.”
A graduate while a Musselman High School student of the nursing program at James Rumsey Technical Institute in Martinsburg, Theilgaard radiates the optimism of youth embarking on an exciting career ahead.
She’s excited about her current challenge of having so much to learn and for a career opportunity that will require her to continually update her skillset.
She likes the variety and spontaneity of the work routines, where few emergency calls are much the same.
“It always exciting and it keeps you on your toes,” she said.
Theilgaard admits she’s become drawn to the adrenaline rush she still gets.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “You have to be willing to drop everything. No matter what kind of day you’re having, it stops as soon as those [emergency call] tones go off and you go out to help someone on their worst day.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Theilgaard initially was only interested in the medical-rescue side of a first-responder career. But after volunteering at Shepherdstown Fire Department, she said she sees the various career advantages and opportunities in branching out with her firefighting training.
Those opportunities can also lead to hiring advantages as well, she said.
She currently works as a certified nursing assistant in the emergency room at Winchester Hospital in Winchester, Virginia, a position she obtained due to her James Rumsey studies.
The job has given her useful knowledge as a medical rescue worker to prepare patients being transported to an emergency room, she said.
But she knows having both the medical and firefighting certifications will boost her chances of landing a paid job as a first responder. And she just started a certification program to become a paramedic.
“I’ve been putting in applications and going for interviews,” she said. “If you’re willing to prove yourself then you can do almost anything that you wanted to.”