Female firefighters making strides in Baltimore County

By: Ron Snyder

Jennifer Aubert-Utz did not plan for a career in the Fire Department.

Her original goal was to be a flight paramedic for the Maryland State Police, but an aversion to guns changed those plans and led Aubert-Utz to join the Baltimore County Fire Department 17 years ago.

“I knew I just wanted to be in a position to help people,” Aubert-Utz said. “Every day, working at the Fire Department is unique, and it’s rewarding as well, whether it is helping residents who need your help or teaching the next generation of firefighters.”

Aubert-Utz has been able to do that and more over the course of her career; which did not go unnoticed by Chief John Hohman, who recently promoted Aubert-Utz to assistant chief, making her the first female to achieve that rank in the history of the Baltimore County Fire Department.

Before her promotion, Aubert-Utz steadily moved up the department’s ranks, beginning as a firefighter/EMT. She recently served as commander of the Fire-Rescue Academy. She has a master’s degree in management from Johns Hopkins and completed the National Fire Academy’s four-year applied research program to attain the executive fire officer designation.

“Assistant Chief Aubert-Utz has made a difference at every position she has held in the Fire Department, and I know she will continue that in her current position,” said Hohman, adding that Aubert-Utz’s work will include working as a liaison with the county’s volunteer stations.

Aubert-Utz said she is honored to be the first woman to achieve the rank of assistant chief and hopes to serve as a role model for other women seeking to move up the ranks in the department.

“My hope is to show if you set a career path and put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything,” Aubert-Utz said. “Baltimore County is ahead of the game in terms of recruiting and retaining women in the Fire Department.”

According to Baltimore County figures, about 20 percent of the approximately 1,000 members of the Fire Department are women. Nationally, just 7 percent of firefighters are females, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Hohman said he has taken steps toward not just recruiting, but retaining female members of the Fire Department, which includes targeting college athletes and making sure facilities and equipment are available for males and females.

“When I joined the department almost 40 years ago, there was not a single female firefighter or paramedic and women for a while had no bathroom or changing facility in the stations,” Hohman said. “We are making every effort to be a diverse department and recruiting the best people possible.”

Baltimore County Fire Department Capt. Angela Hughes said there has been a lot of progress regarding women in the department since she joined in 1992.

Courtesy of Baltimore County Fire Department
Courtesy of Baltimore County Fire Department
Hughes is past president and co-founder of Baltimore County Women in Fire Service, a group dedicated to leading, advocating, mentoring and encouraging success for women in the department. She is also the president of the board of trustees for the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services.

“Baltimore County is ahead of the curve in terms of women in the Fire Department,” said Hughes, who also spent three years as a paramedic in Baltimore City. “Promoting Chief Aubert-Utz was a great step. She understands the importance of goal planning and can help others map out their goals. I hope to one day see women make up 18 percent of the firefighter workforce nationally.”

Wendy Stallings, a fire specialist in Baltimore County, grew up around fire stations. Her father has been active since the 1970s with Bowleys Quarters Volunteer Fire Co., a station that she joined in 2003 before becoming a career firefighter 11 years ago.

Stallings said she has seen more women seeking to get involved in both volunteer and career fire departments in recent years. She wants to make sure that firefighters are treated the same regardless of gender.

“I took the same physical tests as the men and have never been treated as anything but an equal,” Stallings said. “That’s all you can ask for in any profession. It’s great to see there are so many opportunities in this field for women. I’ve spoken to classes during fire prevention week and the girls come up and many don’t realize that women can be firefighters, too.”

Baltimore County Fire Department Lt. Sandy Funk said she did not reflect on how far women have come in the department until this month as she prepares to retire after a 28-year career.

When Funk joined the city Fire Department 30 years ago, she was one of only about seven females in the department.

“I never wanted to be a trailblazer; I just wanted to be a firefighter,” Funk said. “But we have come a long way. We had to use the public restroom at the front of the station when we first joined because there were no women’s restrooms. There’s also proper turnout gear designed for women. Being a firefighter has been a great career, and I’m glad to see the progress that’s been made.”