Female firefighter draws double duty as flight paramedic

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

You'd think a girl would want to take a break on her day off.

Instead, Vicki Moldenhauer is flying through the air, making life decisions as a paramedic on the St. Francis Air Evac Lifeteam.

And it's not like her day job is boring. Moldenhauer is a paramedic-firefighter with the Cape Girardeau Fire Department.

"I'd say most people want to become firefighters because of the adrenaline rush," said fire chief Mike Lackman. "That's why they start. They stay because they like helping people."

The events of Sept. 11 changed the way people all over the country view those who work in public safety, and the attention has left Moldenhauer a little nonplused.

"One day you're anonymous firefighters, the next, the town heroes," she said.

And since Moldenhauer is the only female firefighter in Cape Girardeau, sometimes she gets an uncomfortable double dose of that notoriety.

Monday, she will be recognized by the Southeast Missouri State University student group Women in Public Life as part of a program called "Empowering Women: Overcoming Adversity." She'll represent women who serve as firefighters.

Other women to be honored are in law enforcement, government and community service.

After seven years as "one of the guys," 32-year-old Moldenhauer has mixed feelings about being in the spotlight, but her peers say she deserves the pat on the back.

"I'd take another 10 firefighters like her tomorrow," said battalion chief Steve Niswonger.

A Perryville, Mo., native, Moldenhauer said she remembers the morning she made the decision to go into public safety.

She was on summer break from high school when a call came to the house. Her grandfather, August Moldenhauer, had been hit by a train as he was crossing nearby railroad tracks in his truck.

The family beat the ambulance to the scene.

"I remember waiting for the ambulance," she said. "I never wanted to feel that helpless again."

Her grandfather survived the accident and lived to see her become a firefighter.

By 1991, she was an emergency medical technician for a local ambulance service. In 1995, she started flying as a paramedic with a helicopter rescue crew.

She said she liked the action, liked being in the field and liked being able to help.

In late 1995, Moldenhauer was encouraged to apply for one of four positions opening at the Cape Girardeau Fire Department.

Out of the original 40 applicants, 23 passed the initial written test.

That was followed by a grueling physical agility test, kind of an obstacle course for firefighters that had to be completed in seven minutes.

That narrowed the field more, and Moldenhauer was still in the running. She was hired in September 1995.

Though she was a paramedic when she joined the fire department, she was completely green when it came to fighting fires.

'This is your future'

Fire Capt. Robert Kembel trained Moldenhauer and was waiting for her on her first day.

He greeted her like he did every new recruit by standing stone-faced at the firehouse door, stopping her on the way in.

"Firefighter Moldenhauer. Do you know what this is?" he demanded, holding his empty hands in front of him, cupped together.

She shook her head. "No sir."

He continued: "This is your future. Don't make me lose my grip."

Later, Moldenhauer would learn that Kembel is a master prankster who sees it as his duty to regularly test the mettle of his men. In his eyes, their ability to take a joke with grace is almost as important as their ability to take much more serious tests.

"If you can't take fun and teasing, you're going to have a miserable career," Kembel said. "Either get tough or die."

He jokes that he had to teach her everything, including how to spit, telling an embarrassing tale of Moldenhauer as a new firefighter who forgot to raise her visor before she hawked out a wet, black mouthful of ash.

After she was hired, Moldenhauer's first gender-specific test came from outside the department.

Wives of the firefighters she would be working with weren't wild about the idea of a young, single blonde woman sharing sleeping quarters with their husbands.

"Some of the wives were pretty apprehensive about Vicki," admitted Kembel. He said gradually the other women became more comfortable.

She said the men in the firehouse worked hard to make her feel comfortable.

One day Kembel told her "Hell, Vicki, I thought when we got you we'd finally get some good cooking, there'd be doilies all over and the place would start smelling good."

He said he couldn't have been more wrong. While the men now respect her for her ability as a firefighter and paramedic, Moldenhauer ranks pretty low on the list of cooks. Her first attempt at spaghetti was basically pink noodles, Kembel said.

Eligible for captain

After more than six years in the station, Moldenhauer is one of six firefighters eligible to be promoted to the rank of captain.

Still, "Where does the girl sleep?" is probably the most common question visiting firefighters ask when they learn about the female on the crew.

She sleeps where the rest of the crew sleeps, in a four-bed dormitory in the firehouse.

"Geesh, it's not like we're all piled up like puppies in there," Moldenhauer said.

Like many, Moldenhauer was glued to the television March 11, watching a documentary that chronicled New York City firefighters' response to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

She said she felt both awed and proud watching the men respond to an emergency of that magnitude.

"They walked into those buildings the same way we walk into a small house fire," Moldenhauer said.

abuchanan@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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