TrailblazHER: Waterloo's only female fighter is leading by examp - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

TrailblazHER: Waterloo's only female fighter is leading by example

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"Entering here," is heard over radio communication as two Waterloo Firefighters enter a burning building for a training exercise.

Through the smoke-filled darkness of the burning building, there are glimpses of reflective yellow and the outline of a helmet -- the uniform we've come to associate bravery with and only a few possess. But it is what is underneath that really counts.

 "I took all my stuff off and there was neighborhood kids around and they were like, 'Oh, I didn't know that was a woman under there,'" said Waterloo Firefighter Onyotse Agbese.

In a department of more than a hundred firefighters, Onyotse Agbese or "Ony" as she is known by her teammates, is Waterloo's only female firefighter.

"It is cool to blend in and people don't know you are a female. When they find out they are like, 'Oh, okay. Women can do that too,'" said Agbese.

Agbese is just one of three women to ever serve on the Waterloo's department.

It is a goal Agbese never knew she had. She grew up on Waterloo's East Side, she played soccer and basketball, and had strong role models for parents.

"My mom is from Jamaica and my dad is from Nigeria. My mom is a teacher and my dad is a professor at UNI. They showed that even if you aren't from here, you can still do whatever you want," said Agbese. 

Agbese expected her future to lie in business and the French language, but following her UNI graduation, her job search landed her at a firefighter recruitment night.

"I didn't have any hero growing up that inspired me to do it. So I think when you don't see somebody doing the job, you don't think that you can do it," said Agbese.

Waterloo isn't an anomaly. Cedar Falls just had their only female firefighter retire. When you look at it nationally, only about three percent of all career firefighters are women.

"I think where the fire service has failed in the recruitment of females is that there is so much more to the job than just fire fighting," said Waterloo Fire Chief Pat Treloar. "There is the EMS aspect, the public outreach aspect, there are inspections, there is a whole lot of other things that go along with the job other than fire fighting. Any women out there that are interested in being a firefighter should look at the whole package."

Female recruits are still held to the same test standards, proof Agbese points out to those who doubt women can fight fires and save lives.

"There are still people out there that kind of doubt when a woman gets hired in a position like this. 'Is she strong enough? Is she as strong as me? Is she going to be able to pull me out if there is an emergency?'" said Agbese.

But it wasn't an easy path to getting her helmet. "I failed it two times. You just have to work at it and sometimes it is a mental thing more than it is a physical job," said Agbese.

The demanding test is something Chief Treloar says usually stops many candidates, including the few women who do apply.

"It shows her perseverance and commitment to become a firefighter," said Chief Treloar.

Focused on the job, Agbese says she rarely thinks about the fact she is the only girl.

"On a day to day basis, I don't really think about it. I know some people will. Like, they will say, 'See you guys later. Oh, and Ony.' Because they have to add me onto it, but I don't take offense to it if they say see you guys later," said Agbese.

That is as far as the singling out goes, Agbese says her fellow firefighters have only met her with support and acceptance; creating a future for our next generation to pursue a passion in community service and public safety.

"My niece just turned four and she is pretty interested in the fire thing right now because of her aunt," said Agbese.

Agbese hopes she is leading by example.

"It is a good feeling. I hope that I am making a difference in the community just by being in the position that I am and helping people out," said Agbese, who is a two-year veteran of the department and plans on continuing to serve her hometown for years to come.

For more information on becoming a firefighter and Waterloo Fire & Rescue head to the department's website.

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