Answering the Call: Women in Fire
Whatever the motivation, following in family footsteps or living a childhood dream, women in Leland are stepping up to firefighting service.
Nationwide, about 4 percent of full-time firefighters are women, but in Leland, the percentage is higher, about 16 percent. Of Leland’s 30-some firefighters, five are women. Gabby Cooksey and Whitley Lovette, two of Leland’s female firefighters, share what it’s like in the demanding job of saving lives in what formerly has been seen as a man’s world.
Running toward danger to help others might seem like an unimaginable career choice, but it’s what Gabby Cooksey always wanted to do. Starting in kindergarten, she told all of her teachers she wanted to be a soldier and a firefighter, even though none of her immediate family was in the military or fire service. Her dreams never changed, and she has accomplished both.
Cooksey tackled the soldier part first, enlisting with the Marines and serving in the engineer company as a water support technician at Cherry Point from 2015 to 2018. Her brother joined the Marines with her. When her four years in the Marines were finished, Cooksey began fire training at Crystal Coast Fire Academy in Morehead City.
“What really caught my eye to be a Marine was the challenge, the camaraderie, the brotherhood,” Cooksey says. “When I decided to get out of the military, I still wanted all that. I wanted to serve my country and the American people. The transition was very smooth for me because a lot of things are the same.”
Although she thrived on the physical and mental challenges of the fire academy, admiring the instructors and being pumped by the challenge, she admits it was very hard to stay the course and says she almost didn’t make it through.
“It is very challenging,” she says. “It’s Monday through Friday and sometimes every other Saturday. I was working and going through the school. There were plenty of times I wanted to give up. It was just hard, especially when I was the only girl and all these guys were doing everything so easily. At the same time, it was so much fun.”
Cooksey did make it through the fire academy. She’s been stationed at Leland Fire Station #2 on River Road for six months. Previously she served the Western Carteret Fire & EMS Department.
Being in fire service means you have to stay fit, so it’s a good thing Cooksey enjoys power lifting. She would love to compete on the Rock’s The Titan Games one day.
“My motivation is that I’m in a physically demanding job, and if you’re not fit you become a liability,” she says. “Another driving factor is that I have a 4-year-old as well. I don’t want to be one of those parents who just sit around because they’re too unhealthy to go do anything.”
Cooksey’s shifts at the Leland Fire Station run from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m.
“Our typical day is to come in, sit down with the previous crew and get an overview of what they did,” she says. “They hand the post off to us. After that we check all of our trucks, all of our gear, make sure everything is in service. We usually do some sort of training, get lunch in, we do a workout together of some sort. That’s it, training and calls and working out. We’ll have a family dinner and unwind at the end of the day, a little after 5 usually.”
Just like on TV, the calls often come in at inopportune moments. “Either you’re in the shower, in the restroom or in the middle of cooking, and you just have to turn everything off and run,” Cooksey says.
Leland currently has 30 fulltime firefighters and is planning to hire nine more after the start of the year.
“I love the fact that the department is growing, and we meet all these people that come from different places,” Cooksey says. “We all teach each other things and piggyback off each other’s experiences and as a group we can grow and learn.”
Being a mother adds extra challenges to Cooksey’s job. “There are times when it is hard because I leave for 24 hours and she’s like ‘Mom, you’re always gone.’ In reality, though, I get four days off at a time. I say the Marine Corps is a lot harder for parents. There would be times when I’d be gone for months. It all comes down to having that strong family base. You just have to have everything in order, if you don’t your work and family life is going to be a mess.”
Besides, her daughter is her biggest fan. “She is very proud. She tells all her friends ‘Mommy’s a firefighter.’ I want to be that role model in her life, show her that women can do tough jobs.”
Following in family footsteps Whitley Lovette is another of Leland’s firefighting women. She has served more than two years at Station #1 in Leland and is also a volunteer lieutenant at White Lake Fire Department in Bladen County.
Her firefighting roots run deep. Not only did Lovette grow up in a house with a fire chief for a dad and a police chief for a mother, her grandfather was a charter member of the South Salisbury Fire Department, and his father drove the first motorized fire engine for the city of Kannapolis.
Lovette started as a Firefighter Explorer in Burlington, North Carolina, at the age of 14. The Explorer program allows teens to get introductory experience at a station by doing ride-alongs, cleaning trucks and other tasks.
Lovette explains that she and Cooksey are both on A Shift at their separate stations.
“We both ride tail board, which is the backseat, which is like the bottom of the totem pole,” she says. “We are the ones who actually go inside and fight fire. We support the rescue truck on wrecks and stuff like that. We don’t necessarily make big decisions, but we make split-second decisions that support our officers, our drivers, our captains, our battalion chiefs. It’s like in the military, it’s like we’re the grunts.”
Like all firefighters, the main goal is keeping their cool.
“You have to be levelheaded and keep your head on a swivel, be aware of all of your surroundings and everything that is going on around you,” Lovette explains. “It’s like playing chess not checkers. You have to have an understanding of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and what needs to be done in the next step.”
A self-described adrenaline junkie, Lovette says she is like the Tasmanian Devil. “Just point me in the direction you want me to go,” she says. She has no fear of emergency situations, but don’t ask her to ride a rollercoaster or talk to a clown.
“I am terrified of clowns. Terr – i – fied!” she says with a laugh.
Lovette gave some thought to taking another career path. She got a bachelor’s degree in agri-businesses at Mt. Olive College and considered going back to get another degree in plant pathology, breeding plants and crops. She would have joined a line of farmers on her mother’s side of the family.
“I quit running calls for about three or four years while in college,” she says. “I hated it, not being able to do what I wanted to do. I just came back to what I knew.”
Finding time to volunteer with White Lake Fire Department is a way to share her fire service knowledge.
“I volunteer because it really does help my community,” she says. “I’m one of three paid firemen on my volunteer station. … Having the knowledge I’ve gained at Leland, and with my background, I can turn around and implement that into a volunteer house and help move them forward.”
When the boots are on the ground, the job is tough, and the human loss can be devastating.
“When the outcome is bad, you compartmentalize and you deal,” she says. “When you sign up for this job you know you are going to see people at the worst times of their lives. You have to be a pillar, a concrete substance to help them deal with what they’re going through at the moment. And you deal with what you’ve seen when you get back to the station house.
“I’ve had some rough calls in my career. The ones that affect me the most are usually children and young adults, those hit heavy. It’s the same with anybody in emergency services. You don’t want to see somebody so young gone. We are a family in emergency services, law enforcement, EMS, fire, emergency management — we all have the same life thread. We all understand that there are things going to affect us negatively in this job. But most of us are protectors, defenders and fixers. We don’t want other people to go through what we’ve seen or gone through.
“We get a lot more bad than we do good at times, it’s the nature of the job,” she says. “At the same time, you see a lot of positivity. I like doing fire prevention in the month of October and going in schools. If a young female looks at me and thinks ‘Hey, if she can do this, I can do this,’ then I show a positive role model for younger children in the community.”
On Lovette’s 5-foot-tall frame, the weight of the fire gear is almost half her weight. “With all my gear, tools, air pack, what have you, it is about 75 pounds of things when I’m geared up,” she says.
But just as with all the tough parts of the job, she has a mindset that helps her thrive: “You just do it. If it is what you want to do, you find a way and you do it.”