WHEATFIELD – As a dispatcher for the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office and a volunteer firefighter for St. Johnsburg Fire Department, Wendi Walker is unfazed by being a woman in a male-dominated career.
And now, as the first female to lead the Western New York Volunteer Firemen’s Association, she continues to blaze a trail.
But for Walker, it’s all in a day’s work.
And it is also all in the family. Her uncle, Lloyd Labue of Brockport, and her dad, Robert, who is still active in St. Johnsburg, also have served as president of the Western New York Volunteer Fireman’s Association – making her the third family member to lead the organization.
Walker recently led the association in planning the 115th annual Western New York Firemen’s Convention, which was held in Wheatfield at the end of last month and drew hundreds of firefighters to the area.
How long have you been a firefighter at St. Johnsburg?
I’ve been there for 20 years. My dad was (a firefighter), my grandfather, my uncle. I have a couple nieces and nephews. One nephew is only 10, but I am pretty sure when he is 16, he will be joining the fire hall.
You notice that a lot – family members joining in. Why?
I think it’s something you grow up with. It’s instilled into you. When you turn 16 – when I was growing up it was 18 – it seemed like the natural thing to do. I have a sister, but she never joined the fire hall. But she works in emergency services.
Did your dad and grandfather encourage you to join?
Nope. There was no pressure. I believe that just before I turned 18, I asked my dad to bring me home an application, and I turned it in as soon as I turned 18.
Are more women joining the ranks as firefighters?
When I first joined, my fire department already had three. So we’ve had some others join since then.
Are people surprised when you say you are a firefighter?
I don’t think so anymore, no. Maybe when I first joined – when I was 18. But a lot of things have changed over the last 20 years.
I think they are seeing more and more women in the fire service than you did then.
We’ve all heard that volunteers are getting scarce.
Yes, and that’s a problem. It seems to be that the numbers are dwindling.
How do you combat that?
We participate in the Firemen’s Association of New York, also known as FASNY. They do a program every April called Recruit New York where you open up your fire halls for recruiting, and we do that every year. We’re pretty lucky in our fire hall. We have a very good membership. We have the largest membership out of all the fire companies in the Town of Wheatfield.
There’s five fire companies in the town, and we have close to 130 to 140 total members. And we have 60 or so who are active.
What do you like about being a firefighter?
The camaraderie. The sense of family.
You are the first female to head the Western New York Volunteer’s Association. What does that entail?
The association comprises 11 different counties in Western New York. They were formed in 1899, and they had their first convention in 1900, which was held in Lockport.
We have training seminars. We hold annual meetings at the convention. We do different types of competitions, and we have entertainment and a beer tent at night. It moves around every year. We host the quarterly meetings, and St. Johnsburg is my home department so we host and organize the convention.
There’s a lot of work and planning that goes into hosting a convention. We’ve been planning for four years. I couldn’t have done it without my co-chairs, my dad and Mike Kislack and Tim Pytlik.
How did it go?
It was actually a huge success. Everything went smoothly, and we had tons of people here. There was well over a thousand people here. The biggest thing is that it brings revenue into your county.
Why haven’t women taken the lead before you?
I think they were just letting men do the work, but I am the first female elected to their executive board. You are looking at a field that is very male-dominated. Even still it’s very male-dominated.
When they started letting the females join, I don’t think anybody really was ready to step up to the plate. You go to every fire hall and you’ll see women here and there, but it’s still mostly men. I don’t think it will ever be even, but it’s changing little, by little.
What’s your “9-to-5” job?
I wish I worked 9 to 5. I work part time as paramedic at Twin City Ambulance, and I work full time as an emergency dispatcher for the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office.
So helping people in emergencies is really your field.
Yes. I went to school for an associate’s degree in criminal justice. It’s all that whole realm of public safety.
It does take a certain personality, doesn’t it?
Yes, right. I’ve had a few things that have happened over the years. I’m a firefighter/EMT (emergency medical technician) at St. Johnsburg. We have a volunteer ambulance in the town that we bill, Tri-Community (in Sanborn). I belong to Tri-Community, too, and was past president there, too.
When it comes to volunteering, some people can’t say no.
I think that’s my problem.
Have you enjoyed it?
I have. I don’t know if I can sum it up with one word, but I enjoy what I do. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. I like helping the people.
Why you think someone should become a firefighter?
I think if you have that sense that you want to help somebody or give something back to the community. That is the way to do it.
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