FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Alessandra Montalbano, Private 1st Class Alexis Shackley and Assistant Chief Hilary Tuttle are three of the female firefighters serving the Fort Campbell community. Fort Campbell Fire and Emergency Services has 87 firefighters of those seven are women.
Discovering a calling
Montalbano, Shackley and Tuttle each arrived at the firefighting profession differently.
“When I was in the Army I volunteered as a firefighter and that’s when I realized that was the direction I wanted to go, and my uncle is a Chicago firefighter, so I’ve always thought about it,” Montalbano said.
What kept her there, she said, was the same spirit of teamwork she found through her Army service.
“I wanted to feel like a part of something,” Montalbano said. “I liked the camaraderie that I felt in the military, and I saw that in the fire service, even just as a volunteer.”
As a child, Shackley watched her uncle, who is now the fire chief of North Las Vegas, serve his community as a firefighter. She wanted to be like him based on his selflessness and kindness toward others.
At times Christmas was tough in the single-parent household Shackley grew up in. One holiday while visiting her uncle at his firehouse, her mother asked her what she wanted for Christmas.
Shackley told her mother she wanted to donate toys to other children in need.
The response the next day from her uncle’s firehouse changed her life.
“I woke up to a house full of decorations and presents and the firefighters were outside with the engine, and it was a really big changing point for me,” she said adding the gesture moved her to want to do the same for others.
“When people ask me where my love for the fire department started, for me it’s really just about who they are as people,” Shackley said. “It’s one of those professions where you have to be bigger than yourself to do it. You have to be a selfless person or it’s just not for you.”
Shackley went on to become a Soldier and a firefighter. She is the first woman in her immediate Family to serve in both those roles.
Tuttle had no exposure to firefighting before she signed on and said for her it was a happy accident.
“When I graduated high school, I took a 22-credit course for the fire academy,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about it, and I remember thinking that was a lot of credits for one semester, so I decided I would do that. The first day when they told me how the positions worked and the schedule of the fire department, I kind of liked it and I just decided that was what I was going to do.”
Twenty-five years later, she doesn’t regret that decision. She is also the first person in her Family to serve as a Soldier and a firefighter.
Being a firefighter did not come without challenges, Shackley said. Not just because of the hard physical work but because there are so few women in the profession and discrimination against them is real.
Not only did Shackley’s Family doubt her ability to become a firefighter, but when she went to the Army recruiter and told him her plans, he laughed at her. Although the lack of support was disheartening, she said, it gave her even more reason to succeed.
“I used that as motivation to be that change,” she said. “I remember thinking, I have to be that person. I have a 9-year-old sister and she wants to be a firefighter more than anything, so it’s something we have in common and that drives me every day.”
Shackley was just 97 pounds when she enlisted, and she remembers the grueling process of having to put on enough weight just to qualify for entry into the Army.
“The minimum you can be in the Army is 117 pounds and I remember at AIT [advanced individual training] I was struggling at first,” Shackley said. “When I went through the fire academy before enlisting, I failed out with dummy drags and that was hard.”
She did not give up, instead she kept eating healthy, exercising, and practicing until she pulled through.
“When I got to the DOD academy I dug deep and remembered why I did it, and truly what got me through it was picturing my Family on the other side or that my mother was the one I was dragging,” Shackley said.
Tuttle said while the women firefighters have amazing stories of resilience and overcoming obstacles to get where they are, she wishes it wasn’t so.
“Less than 4% of women are career firefighters in the nation, so it is the smallest underrepresented position for women,” she said. “For some reason women participation in the fire service has continuously stayed very, very low. That’s unfortunate because it’s 2022 and you wouldn’t think you can be a trailblazer these days.”
Nationally less than 200 chief officers in paid departments are women, Tuttle said, and female supervisors in the field are hard to come by.
Other challenges women have faced have come from outdated structures and equipment that was designed solely for men. Change has been slow, Tuttle said, but it is happening, which gives her hope the career field will become for appealing to women.
Pursuing a dream
Despite some of the hardships Tuttle has had to overcome as a woman in a male-dominated profession, she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Being a firefighter, she said, doesn’t feel like a job.
“It just doesn’t ever feel tedious and it’s different every day,” Tuttle said.
Her advice to women considering firefighting is to not let anything stop them and to choose their department carefully.
Montalbano said women who really want the job should absolutely go for it.
“If you want to do it, just do it,” she said. “I don’t let people stop me. Don’t stop or let fear of failure stop you from doing something. You just have to continue to push forward and not fear failure.”
Shackley’s advice to women interested in becoming firefighters is to remember what drew them to the profession in the first place.
“You have to really want it,” she said. “There are going to be so many days when you will be doing what works for you to get you through a tough time and you have to know that it will be worth it in the end. Believe that this is what you were born to do. There are a thousand ways to change your physical demeanor but there’s no way to change who you are.”