Karen Bureker never imagined she'd end up in a career as a firefighter. She, like a lot of people, assumed it wasn't a field meant for women.
"I think most people typically think of a firefighter as a tall, strong dude," she said. "You know, that stereotypical picture. All kids' books on firefighting don't show a girl — it's always some big dude with these muscles."
But Bureker now realizes that being a firefighter means so much more than being a "big dude with muscles."
While her job requires great physical endurance, it also demands skills in empathy and emotional intelligence, she said.
Earlier this month, Bureker became the first woman fire captain at Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, after nearly two decades with the fire district.
The climb up the ranks was a challenging and competitive process, one which even required a promotional examination.
"I think at this point in my career, it was probably the hardest test I've had to take because I had so much self-pressure of doing well," Bureker said.
As captain, Bureker is responsible for a fire station and personnel management of three shifts of crews, including lieutenants, apparatus operators, firefighter and paramedics.
"Karen has demonstrated proficiency at every level in the organization and will continue to be successful in this new role," TVF&R Chief Deric Weiss wrote in an emailed statement. "She has risen up through the ranks over 19 years and performed at a high level in each of them.
"Knowing Karen, this is merely the next step in her career, but for the district, it is an important benchmark toward our collective goals. She leads by example and has the ability to manage both incidents and personnel extremely well. Beyond firefighting, she has led initiatives that have made the district more welcoming to all, and I look forward to watching her continued growth and leadership."
Bureker initially pursued a career as a paramedic with no intention of ever becoming a firefighter. She said while she was at school, she interacted with fire chiefs and others in the fire service who encouraged her to pursue firefighting instead.
Bureker, whose outgoing and energetic nature meshed well with others in the fire service, finished paramedic school and volunteered with the Hood River Fire Department to see if the fire service was for her.
At 5-foot-5 and 130 pounds, Bureker was worried she wouldn't be up to the physical demands of the job. But Bureker quickly grew to love the work.
She was eventually hired at TVF&R in 2002.
"I think (the physical demands) are a little bit overstated, but I've been an athlete my whole life, and knowing how to use my body really helped me be successful as a firefighter," Bureker explained.
Bureker's paramedic background has been an asset too, as most of the calls to which she responds are medical in nature.
"Understanding how to talk to people and be compassionate and empathetic is such a large part of our job," she said. "Also, just having a wide variety of skill sets. We're the ultimate jack-of-all-trades problem-solver."
While Bureker said she has experienced nothing but support from her colleagues, there have also been several occasions where Bureker has felt disrespected as a female firefighter.
"I remember going on calls, and you know, you get called for someone who needs help, and they call the fire department, and you show up, and the man shows up at the door and says, 'Oh, I thought I was getting the fire department or the firemen,'" Bureker said. "And it's really nice when you have a partner that'll stand up for you and say, 'Yes, sir. We are the fire department. We are just as strong as what you need.'"
There have also been moments where being a woman has been advantageous for Bureker. At times, she has responded to scenes where families prefer that a woman take care of another woman in need of help.
While there have been many strides in expanding diversity in fire departments, there is still a long way to go.
Only 4% of career firefighters in the U.S. are women, according to a study released by the National Fire Protection Association. TVF&R hovers at just over 7%.
Bureker hopes to pave a path forward for other women and girls to pursue a career in firefighting. This past summer, she mentored young women and girls during the annual Portland Metro Fire Camp, which provides an opportunity for girls and young women to get a taste of firefighting.
"I didn't have that opportunity when I was young, and it was OK. I just made myself do it through volunteering. But that opportunity is so great for girls, and I hope that I can get my daughter to do a lot these days," she said.
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