Story by Clint Kelly
Photos by Larry Canaday
A year ago, Sarah Hardman was a guest on the syndicated Maury Povich Show, representing "Women in Male-Dominated Careers." As a student firefighter (below, right), she wrestles the same heavy gear and equipment as the seven males on her shift. On emergency medical duty (below, left), she drives an ambulance and resuscitates all ages, from infants to the elderly. Her goal? To always strive for "a good outcome."
Sarah Hardman's father was a hard-knuckled firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. When his daughter was hired as the first female firefighter and EMT in the Pendleton, Oregon, Fire and Ambulance Department, he offered just one piece of advice: "Remember, you have to be tough, but you're still a lady."
Today the lady is a champ and the demands of her day read like the exploits of a superhero. She's known as "Fire Station Sarah" and all on her own can pack a bundled 50-pound fire hose up three flights of stairs, raise a 100-foot extension ladder, drive a racing ambulance, or free a trapped passenger from a crushed vehicle using the "jaws of life."
She has stood between life and death for more than one victim in distress. She once kept a woman breathing on a hand-held ventilator for an entire hour en route to brain surgery. On another occasion, she administered electric shock to a gentleman who was clinically dead when she arrived. Three months later, she waved to him on the street.
Forest fires and drowning calls. Chain collisions and animal rescues. Whatever the need, Sarah Victoria Hardman is there to, if not save the day, at least give it a fighting chance. Many of the 21,000 people in her 1,300-square-mile jurisdiction have come to view her as their very own angel of mercy.
But please don't call her a girl. "She's not a girl," the seven men with whom she shares "B" shift will tell you, "she's a firefighter."
Just two years ago, the self-styled adrenaline junkie was a diligent student of biology and anatomy in her pre-med program at Seattle Pacific University. She worked in the Admissions Office, gave campus tours and was a student ministry coordinator (SMC) on Fifth Ashton. She was then, and is now, an avid booster of Seattle Pacific.
"The medical background and preparation I received at SPU were incomparable," says Hardman, who credits Professor of Biology Ken Moore with encouraging her to follow her dreams. "My education gave me a real advantage in my plans to be a physician's assistant, plus I came out well-grounded in my faith."
The 1999 SPU graduate had a job and a house already lined up in Seattle when her parents found an advertisement for the student firefighter position in Pendleton, not far from the family home in Cove. She prayed about the opportunity and applied. She passed the demanding I.Q., physical and oral exams in impressive fashion.
As one of three fire station "sleepers," or resident students, she has her own room on the premises. She also has the "pleasure" of rolling out on fire calls, whether on duty or not. But her 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off work schedule allows her to take nursing courses at Blue Mountain Community College. She's now thinking of becoming a nurse practitioner and running her own office.
In the immediate, though, she thrives on the risk and reward of saving homes, businesses and lives. Her fiancé, a deputy in the sheriff's department, wishes she'd think more about her own personal safety. She's already fallen through two burning ceilings, protected only by the heavily padded "turnouts," or firefighting attire.
"Once, an entire downtown city block was ablaze," says Hardman as she recalls her closest brush with death. "I was on initial attack and ran out of oxygen in my air pack. I stopped breathing and had to be rushed to the hospital. I missed five days that time."
Rarely are two consecutive days alike. She laughingly thinks back to the charred chicken she once "rescued" from a restaurant rotisserie. Last summer, she went on "conflagration call" and fought wildfires in one of the worst forest fire seasons in decades. Hardman keeps her nails short and her long blond hair tucked safely inside her helmet. The only jewelry she wears is an engagement ring.
But for all the excitement and sense of accomplishment her job brings, there are also loss and hard lessons to be learned. "God decides who makes it and who doesn't," Hardman says.
Her voice hushes with sadness in memory of the 11-year-old drowning victim who died in her arms on the banks of the Umatilla River. "We couldn't locate the victim. We had to split up and search about a mile downstream before we found her. The ventilation equipment had gone with the other part of the crew so I had to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for my first time. She didn't make it."
But Hardman, who gives school tours of the fire station, has also looked into the eyes of a child clutching to a faint hope. "The guys love to dress me up in my gear to show the kids that under there I'm not so scary, but really a nice lady."
One little girl looked especially pleased. "I always wanted to be a firefighter, too," she told Hardman, "but I didn't know women could do it." Faster than a speeding bullet, Fire Station Sarah reassured her that they most certainly can.