Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, Shawna Hannan did not always know that she wanted to be a firefighter.
But today, as one of 14 female firefighters representing the Lexington fire department, she is proud of her heritage.
"I grew up very poor. We had an outhouse until I was in the fifth grade," Shawna said."We always worked hard for everything, even as kids."
Drawn to male-dominated professions, she worked for a construction company in her early 20s, and later worked at a sawmill.
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"I was never the kind of person who wanted to put on high heels and sit at a desk," Shawna said.
When her father suffered a brain hemorrhage and was treated by EMTs, Shawna discovered there were no paramedics in their town and she wanted to change that.
"When I started talking to people and finding out about the emergency services in our town and learned that you could go on and do rescue and fire and actually make a difference, I said 'Well, I'll give it a try.' So I became an EMT and absolutely loved it."
Suddenly a whole new world opened up. She also got involved with the Tri-County Dive and Rescue program before attending Maysville Community College to become a paramedic.
"During that time I was just into various rescue things," Shawna said. "I became an advanced swiftwater rescue technician and farm rescue technician and as a paramedic I was working for Morgan County, Prestonsburg (in Floyd County), Pikeville (in Pike County) and Elliott County all at the same time. I was going to different classes at various fire schools around the state and found out I liked the fire side of it as well," she said.
Challenges and rewards
In 2006, Shawna applied to join the Lexington fire department and says she never felt like she was treated differently than the male recruits during the 18 weeks of recruit training. In fact, that's where she met her future husband.
"It wasn't any different for me because I had always worked in a male-dominated field," Shawna said. "I didn't expect any special treatment just because I'm a woman."
Now a full-time firefighter with the rank of lieutenant and a mother, Shawna says that her job comes with a very unique set of challenges and rewards.
"Physical fitness is a big part of this job but its not the end all be all," she said. "I have to be emotionally strong. You have to be able to take seeing people have the worst day of their life and be empathetic but also be able to mitigate the situation."
Shawna concedes that working as a paramedic for 14 years exposed her to many tough situations.
"My first baby code was pretty rough," she said. "So it's hard. You have to try to disassociate yourself to get your job done and afterward it comes flooding in on you, especially if you're a parent."
The fact that Shawna's husband is also a firefighter is helpful.
"I've never been a talk-about-my-feelings sort of person," she said. "I rely on my husband, who is my best friend. He does the same thing I do (for a living). I talk to him; I give my babies hugs. I thank God every day for the blessings that I have. That's all we can do."
Today, one of the greatest rewards of her job is the sense of family among the fire department crews.
"We all depend on each other," she said. "We have to trust each other — if we have a bad day at work it can mean we almost didn't make it home."
Her advice for women considering a career in fire service is to know their strengths and weaknesses, to work hard and not to expect any special treatment.
"Don't look at the fire trucks rolling down the streets with their lights and sirens and think 'Oh that would be cool,'" Shawna said. "If you are the kind of girl who depends on your husband or your male friends to fix things around your house or maintain your oil changes, then this is not the right kind of work for you."