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Alumna breaks gender barrier as firefighter

UMW News Bureau

One year after becoming only the second woman to ever work at the Great Falls Fire Department, Maren Olsen, a 2005 University of Montana Western graduate, says when she was a child growing up in a small Montana town she didn’t even realize being a professional firefighter was an option. UMW NEWS BUREAU [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="445" caption="Maren Olson, right, training. Photo by Matt Ehnes, Brooks Institute Photo."]Maren Olson training. Photo by Matt Ehnes.[/caption] One year after becoming only the second woman to ever work at the Great Falls Fire Department, Maren Olsen, a 2005 University of Montana Western graduate, says when she was a child growing up in a small Montana town she didn’t even realize being a professional firefighter was an option. “Growing up in a small town in Montana, I honestly didn’t even know that you could do that [become a firefighter] for a living,” Olsen remembers. “Being a female too, it’s not really something you throw out there as a way to make a living.” But that’s exactly what the 31-year old Chinook native has done. Olsen earned a bachelor’s degree in business, tourism from Montana Western in 2005. By attending Montana Western, Olsen continued a family tradition; both her parents earned education degrees from Western Montana College (now Montana Western). After graduating, Olsen worked in the tourism industry in Hawaii but eventually decided to go back to school. She earned a master’s in education with a history emphasis from Montana State University-Billings in 2007.
“Going into fire, it hasn’t been easy, but I think if an opportunity presents itself you don’t gain anything if you don’t ever take any risks,” Olsen says.
While attending graduate school, Olsen became interested in firefighting and eventually worked as a volunteer firefighter with the Lockwood Fire Department. Soon after coming on board at Lockwood she knew she wanted to pursue a career in fire. Upon graduating from MSU-B, however, Olsen jumped at an opportunity to work for U.S. Rep. Dennis Rehberg for two years in Missoula and one year in Rehberg’s Helena office. She continued her fire training while working for the Representative, and in In December 2010, she learned of an opening at Great Falls Fire Rescue. She already applied to the department months prior to the opening, and in February 2011 she became the only female firefighter at Great Falls Fire Rescue. In 1980, Great Falls Fire Rescue became the first fire department in Montana to hire a woman. Olsen became only the second female firefighter at the fire department when she was hired over 30 years later. She has 60 co-workers. All are male. Although the gender disparity was difficult at first for her as well as her colleagues, Olsen says the department has been supportive and comes together on the far more important challenges that face them as firefighters. “It’s challenging, physically, mentally and emotionally,” she explains. “There aren’t many jobs that are like that, and fire is challenging in all three. I didn’t do this thinking it would be easy though.” Olsen describes her nine-month probationary period as “a huge learning curve.” Now, as a full-fledged member of the department, she says the decision to pursue a career in fire was worth it. “Going into fire, it hasn’t been easy, but I think if an opportunity presents itself you don’t gain anything if you don’t ever take any risks,” Olsen says. Olsen says part of her growth both professionally and personally started in college at Montana Western. “Being at college in general makes you really grow as a person,” Olsen adds. “I grew hugely due to the people who surrounded me and the relationships I built at Montana Western.”
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