During Womens History Month, a Profile of Two Exceptional First Responders

The field of first response has traditionally been dominated by men.  Law enforcement, firefighting, emergency medical, and search and rescue are all dangerous occupations requiring high levels of agility, strength, and physical exertion.  Just as more innovations arise to make these occupations safer and less strenuous, the need for strong and skilled professionals prevail.
Today, women are not only in the background providing support to their male counterparts, but they are also in “boots on the ground” jobs once only available to men.  In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) First Responders Group (FRG) has chosen to profile two exceptional females with decades of experience and a host of life-altering experiences and best practices between them. These remarkable responders have managed to build sustainable careers, and use cutting-edge technology in support of saving lives every day.
Anne Marie Jensen, EMS San Diego, California
For the past 14 years, Ann Marie Jensen has served as a member of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.  She began work as a medic in 1999 and has since held the position of Resource Access Program (RAP) Coordinator.  Jensen quantifies her career in first response as “definitely rewarding,” and she is clearly respected by her peers, who named her Paramedic of the Year in 2010.   Jensen also received a California EMS Authority Award for her work in EMS-related technology in 2010.
“When I first started, I was in the ambulance for 12 to 13 years.  Now I’m with a law enforcement unit that works as an outreach team for the homeless.”  A large portion of the EMS calls her department receives come from individuals with social and medical vulnerabilities; Jensen works with legal and fire services to identify people who truly need assistance.  
Jensen helped to create and staff the RAP, a tracking system that her department uses to prioritize missions to increase life expectancy of those who are in extreme danger.  RAP also tracks these individuals for future strategic response purposes.
In its developmental stages, Jensen worked with a team to create and execute the RAP.  Prior to her involvement, first responders documented key phrases and personal identifiers from distress calls manually.  Thanks to a grant RAP received to transition to electronic documentation, they were able to transition from written notes to the electronic system they have today, one which Jensen said has helped tremendously.  “We have made a huge leap in technology with this.  I don’t know of anybody else who has this.”  
Jensen attributes much of her success as a first responder to the development of the RAP.  “I’m a paramedic and I have been on-call for 14 years responding to people who dial 911 over and over again,” she said.  The RAP system filters through the 911 database, looks at field values, and uses smart text analysis and key phrases to determine necessary responses.  The system also has the ability to flag reoccurring call cases.  RAP, she said, “saves time on the road and many lives in the process.”  
Jensen said she is most proud of how she has incorporated this technology into her daily work.  “A lot of work went into developing this,” she said.  “When you go on 911 calls, every call is incident-centric; our computer can recognize who really needs help.  [RAP] helps us prioritize; the more times someone calls, the more help they probably need.” In addition to the filters, analytics, and patient algorithms used to prioritize response, the system also issues alerts and can accurately distribute information to the proper channels; if a caller is in a critical state, responders can offer them counseling, and even alert their case manager, should it be someone with a mental or social issue.
On Being a Female First Responder
Jensen believes that contrary to popular stereotypes concerning the unfair treatment of female first responders, she has had nothing but good experiences while working with her male counterparts.  “Overall, when you are a female and look very young, like I do, people think I have no experience,” Jensen says in reference to people outside of her squad.  Jensen believes those who know and work with her everyday know that is far from true.
Preconceived notions like this, among others, serve as motivation for her success.  Still, her position in such a masculine field causes her to always strive for excellence, without excuse. “I feel like I have to be on top of it all the time.  I don’t have the luxury of ever slacking, and I don’t mind that.  In some sense, that constant pressure has given me the motivation necessary to succeed.  It’s almost a positive thing because you always have to live up to a standard,” Jensen said.  “The pressure that I’ve felt has made me become more successful. Personally, I don’t think I could ever get away with (playing) the ‘girl card.’  I am proud that I always had to earn my respect through sound logic and a good work ethic.”
On Support from DHS
Jensen is a member of the FRG’s First Responder Resource Group and uses First Responder Communities of Practice to network with colleagues. “I’ve realized how small the first responder community is,” she said, “and DHS support is awesome.”
Lauralea Thomas, Firefighter/Paramedic, Waukegan Fire Department, Gurnee, Illinois
Lauralea Thomas always had a love for medicine and science.  She received a Bachelor of Science degree from Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana, where she majored in Biology and minored in Spanish.  Shortly after graduating from college, her mother showed her an ad in the paper for careers with fire services and EMS squads.  After applying to the department of her choice, she was hired after the first round of interviews.  Though many candidates apply to multiple departments, Thomas applied to only one and was hired with a high ranking: she was ninth on the list of several dozen.  
After 14 years as a firefighter/paramedic in a department with only two other women, Thomas said that although at first it was a challenge to overcome interpersonal stigma, she believes she has proven herself to be worthy of the same respect owed to her male counterparts.
“When I first started, I thought I had to prove myself.  I felt like I had to try harder and work harder and felt as if I was sometimes more closely critiqued and judged.” Soon, however, she found that her hard work paid off.  When it came to performance, Thomas overcame any preconceived notions and gained the respect of her colleagues. “The guys I work with are happy to have me on the team because they think I offer a new perspective,” Thomas said.
On a Typical Work Day
Thomas describes a typical day at work as unpredictable.  When she arrives, the report from the previous day determines her assignment.  One day she might be on the ambulance team, and another she may work the fire engine.  Usually, she is a “jump man” or “step guy,” both terms that refer to her position on the initial engine response, for which she manages the hose line, puts water on the fire, and issues overhaul as fires progress.
Though it is rewarding, her job does have its share of danger and constraints.  Several technological advances in recent years have helped her work become more effective and interesting.  In the last decade, Thomas believes thermal imaging cameras have been one of the best firefighter-related innovations, making her job easier.  “Now we can locate victims and see through the fire more readily.” When in a fire situation, all you have are your senses, which are harder to rely on because of the environment. The cameras aid responders in locating victims and putting out fires faster through maximizing the responder’s sensory abilities for that particular environment.
Thomas also said that the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure Apparatus (CPAP) had life-saving results in her career recently. CPAP allows EMS to keep the victim’s airways open to ensure oxygen is properly transported through the lungs and heart.  “If someone has an asthma attack,” Thomas described, “they have a very acute point of air consumption, and CPAP offers better oxygen delivery.  We were able to use it and save the person’s life when someone called recently and had shortness of breath.”  The CPAP works a step before a heart attack by helping the victim get the oxygen they need, thus stopping the possibility of respiratory arrest.  The apparatus also helps first responders by providing a less stressful environment, preventing them from having to use more intense life-saving techniques.
Thomas believes the new iteration of the FRG’s Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) will make her job much easier.  “The newest release will change the profile, making it into a flat pack which is lighter and lies flat against the back,” Thomas said.  The next iteration of the SCBA will be low profile, low weight, provide better mobility, and allow responders to perform their job without the extra pounds of weight.  Thomas describes the current SCBA as heavy and large; the new release will make it easier for responders to move with less exertion and in tight spaces.  
What’s Next
Although Thomas loves her job, she leaves the door open to the possibility of transitioning into nursing in the next chapter of her career.  Thomas recently received an Associate’s Degree in Nursing and Emergency Medical Technology and became a licensed practical nurse in July 2012.