SPECIAL SECTION: West Metro firefighter combatting not just fires, but gender barrier

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By Deborah Swearingen

Editor's note: This story is part of a special section published in the Courier on March 1. The section highlights ten women working in traditionally male-dominated fields across Jefferson and Clear Creek counties.

Being a firefighter is about much more than putting out flames.

Lakota Beckhorn, 32, knows this firsthand.

“If you’re getting into this to fight fires, you’re not in it for the right reasons,” the Arvada resident said. “You need to be in it because of the community involvement and being a public servant. That is our job.”

In March 2016, Beckhorn joined West Metro Fire Rescue, a full-service agency covering more than 130 square miles across Jefferson and Douglas counties and serving nearly 280,000 residents.

But her path to the fire service was not clear-cut.

Beckhorn graduated with a degree in anthropology and focus in archaeology, and began working in developmental therapy for adults and children with mental health disorders. After that, she ended up doing industrial electrical work.

Each job was quite different, but both demonstrate a piece of what Beckhorn loves and of what she has found in the fire service – a passion for service and for hands-on work.

From 2011 to ‘15, the annual average number of women working as career firefighters in the United States was 13,750. That is less than 5 percent of all career firefighters. At West Metro, there are five women out of nearly 400 firefighters.

“Youth tend to do and move towards what they see. And that is they want to see somebody like themselves in these positions,” Beckhorn said. “If young girls only grow up seeing firefighters as being firemen, it’s a big jump for them to make to say, ‘I can do this, too.’”

To help combat this problem, Beckhorn worked with Rachel Kohler of West Metro and female firefighters from Arvada Fire Protection District to create Camp Ember, an immersive fire-based camp for teenage girls.

West Metro Chief Don Lombardi commended this effort and agreed that the department needs to reach girls earlier and do a better a job in recruiting women.

“The more that we have, the better we can serve,” he said. “They bring a different set of eyes. They bring a different point of view. … That makes us a better, more rounded organization to provide the best service we can.”

Being new to the department, Beckhorn tends to migrate toward the busiest stations for her 48-hour shifts when possible. She appreciates the experience and understands the importance of gaining muscle memory and exposure.

“They can train you on how to go into fires, and that’s awesome. And they can send you to paramedic school and teach you how to be a paramedic, and that’s great, too,” she said. “But when it comes down to it, our scope is so wide – with critical thinking and problem solving and being resourceful – that experience is going to be your greatest teacher.”

All West Metro firefighters are required to attend paramedic school. In early 2018, Beckhorn graduated as valedictorian.

In her time on staff, Beckhorn can remember a particularly rewarding medical call where being a female may have given her an edge. A young man with mental health issues wasn’t reacting well to a masculine presence, she said. Weeks prior, in a similar scenario, the patient injured several male police officers during a mental health episode.

Knowing her co-workers had her back in an emergency, Beckhorn jumped in willingly to try and help.

“One of the interesting parts of having women involved in public service is that we just do things differently,” she said. “ … I walked up to this individual, and I introduced myself. .... I took his hand, we started talking.

“Simple things like that, making an appropriate gesture and an appropriate touch, can go a really long way.”

Firefighters spend a lot of time together and often risk their lives as a team. Through West Metro, Beckhorn has gained hundreds of brothers and a few sisters.

Differences are important to the success of the department, but perhaps equally so is the understanding of commonality. Within every firefighter is courage, resourcefulness, compassion and a knack for public service.

“I don’t need anybody to change and accommodate me being here,” Beckhorn said, reflecting on what she hopes her male counterparts understand. “ … We both got into the same workforce. We have plenty of commonalities. Let’s focus on that.

“For women getting into (firefighting), we may tend to try and compare ourselves to our male counterparts. Instead, you need to realize that, again, this job is so diverse. … Find what you bring to the table and hold strong to that.” 