When Andrea Kiser, a firefighter/EMT, joined the Presidio of Monterey Fire Department in May, she became Presidio’s first female firefighter, but for her it was just another step in her beloved career.
Kiser started pursuing a career in the fire service in high school, and applied for her first firefighter job when she was just 18 years old.
“I always wanted to help people,” Kiser said. “I didn’t see myself sitting behind a desk every day -- I’m definitely not the dress-up-in-heels every day type of girl.”
She got her first taste of the profession in a high school fire science course. One of three females in the 50-person class -- she was the only female to complete the course.
Kiser started weight training in high school to prepare for the physical challenges of being a firefighter.
“I was trained by some old-school bodybuilders to help me build the strength that I needed,” she said. “When I started at the academy, I already had a good base from the weight training. I just had to increase my endurance.”
After graduating high school, she went on to San Joaquin Delta College in California’s Central Valley where she earned a spot in the SJDC firefighter academy.
Her strength caught the attention of the academy’s fire chief when she successfully deployed and raised a ladder -- known as ladder throwing.
“Me and one other female threw the ladder the first time we tried. The fire chief of the academy came out and said you’re the first females we have ever seen throw the ladder the first time,” Kiser said. “The ladder throwing was the hardest to get my head wrapped around. I’m not as tall as most people and the upper body is different, strength wise, than men.”
After graduating the six-month fire academy, Kiser landed her first job with the Woodbridge Fire Department, 20 miles north of Stockton, California, ten days after 9/11 in 2001.
She worked at Woodbridge FD for five years before moving to the Defense Logistics Agency, San Joaquin Fire Department where she worked for 13 years.
“As a woman, I know I’m a rarity in the fire service -- especially in the federal system. I was the only female in all of DLA in their four departments,” she said.
According to a 2018 National Fire Protection Association report, only 8% of firefighters in the United States are female.
Kiser said she always wanted to live in the Monterey area, and was elated when the PoM FD selected her for the position.
“I have always wanted to work in Monterey -- I fell in love with this area as a kid. We used to do family vacations here. It took me longer than I hoped, but I’m here and I’m staying,” she said.
She added, “I feel like I belong here [PoM FD] the most. This is what I grew up knowing the fire service to be. I am ecstatic to be here -- I couldn’t be happier.”
“We are a tight-knit team and a tight-knit family here, and we hire people based on their merit and look past everything else,” said Col. Varman Chhoeung, Presidio of Monterey commander. “Andrea is well trained with years of experience, and is an integrated member of our team.”
Chhoeung added, “The military has been at the forefront of leading the charge in diversity … at the end of the day it’s about you being able to do your job.”
PoM firefighters said Kiser has been a valuable team member since her first day on the job.
“Andrea hit the ground running,” said PoM firefighter Lt. Kythe Stillwell. “From a life saved with CPR to working on the River Fire, she is a true asset to our department.”
Kiser said she would like to see more female firefighters in the profession.
“I hope more females are not afraid to get into this field,” she said. “It’s hard and it’s challenging, but I think that’s what makes us better people … is challenging yourself every day.”
Kiser’s advice to women who want to become firefighters is to lift weights and focus on strength training.
“You need to build a strong physical body and you need to be mentally and emotionally strong,” she said.
“If your heart is set on it then there’s nothing that can stop you, but your heart has to be all in,” she said. “Even on its bad days it’s rewarding. I get to help others -- how can that not be rewarding? It’s just a fun job.”