MONROE — If you want to see Jesi Klarer do something that might seem difficult, just tell her she can’t. She said that alone is what helps fuel her fire to prove skeptical people wrong.
That’s also the reason four years ago Klarer, who was told she couldn’t manage the job, decided to join the Monroe Fire Department.
Klarer, along with Danyell Stevenson, who has served as a firefighter for a year, is one of the two lone females on the 37 member department.
Stevenson feels similarly to Klarer in hoping to show others that women are capable of doing whatever they set their mind to.
“I just wanted pretty much to show people I could do it and make my kids proud of me,” said Stevenson, who has a 13-year-old stepson and a 5-year-old son.
Klarer also has two boys, ages 13 and 12, and doesn’t want to raise them to think women and others can’t do something because of a stereotype. Challenging these preconceived notions is something Klarer enjoys.
She is a three-part series in the Monroe Times focused on women in professional settings. Stories for She will run in the May 25, May 29 and June 1 editions of the Times.
Stevenson was inspired to join MFD by her uncle Keith Burkholder, who retired after 51 years from the fire department in Lanark, Illinois.
Klarer and Stevenson said when they decided to apply with the department, they didn’t tell many people. They didn’t want to assume they would be accepted and then be disappointed and fail in the eyes of others.
Klarer and Stevenson both began training to pass the necessary tests to become a firefighter.
Applicants are given tests in English, math and agility. The agility test involves wearing a weighted vest and climbing a tower, as well as dragging a weighted mannequin.
Applicants are then taken to Monroe Clinic where it’s determined whether they’re healthy enough to do the job. Once offered the position, more training begins and hires are sent through fire school.
Stevenson said she started with the basics and learned everything. She found the hardest test was given at Monroe Clinic where a machine sucked the air from her lungs, meant to mimic the feeling of running out of air in an actual fire.
“I learned from day one and I’m still learning,” Stevenson said. “It’s been tough, but I went through everything the boys have done.”
For Klarer, no test was more difficult than meeting the required number of pushups to get through training. She said she just persevered by building upon the number of pushups she could do, and eventually reached the number both have now forgotten.
Although both are firefighters, their training continues. The fire department trains every Tuesday night, going over different emergency scenarios. Klarer also had additional driving and first response training.
“I take a lot of pride in our department,” Klarer said. “We’re known for our training.”
I just wanted pretty much to show people I could do it and make my kids proud of me.Danyell Stevenson
When Klarer first joined the department, her presence was questioned by her male counterparts. They asked things like, “How did you get on?”
Klarer said she simply pointed out she completed the same training as everyone else.
“You do have to prove your worth,” Klarer said. “No one’s going to help you.”
Although Stevenson and Klarer said they feel like they have to work harder to earn everyone’s trust, they know the other firefighters in the otherwise all-male department have their backs in an emergency; just as they have theirs.
“I call them my firefighter brothers,” Klarer said.
When Stevenson and Klarer’s pagers go off, they don’t hesitate to get to the station. Stevenson said sometimes they can leave in five minutes or less. They have to dress in gear in under a minute once they arrive.
“We don’t waste time,” Stevenson said.
Outside of firefighting, neither Stevenson nor Klarer have any time to waste either. Klarer works as a medical biller for Freeport Health Network, at Minhas and at the Corner Cafe. She is also currently taking classes. Stevenson programs robots for Emmi Roth and spends time taking care of her children.
“I’m lucky if I get five hours of sleep,” Stevenson said.
However, for both of them, the time commitment isn’t the only hard part of being on the fire department. Both agree that using the bathroom while wearing their gear is also a challenge.
Another is more serious. Stevenson and Klarer agree that it’s difficult to be called to a home of someone they know. When a home of Klarer’s friend caught fire, she felt fortunate they were able to save most of their possessions and their lives.
You do have to prove your worth. No one’s going to help you.Jesi Klarer
Stevenson and Klarer said helping people outweighs the challenges of the job.
“It feels good going home at night knowing you helped someone who might not have been able to help themselves,” Klarer said.
Inspiring others, especially young girls, is what keeps Stevenson and Klarer motivated. Even when the pager goes off in the middle of dinner or when they feel the exhaustion from their other jobs as they are called to an emergency.
“I’m proud to be on Monroe’s team,” Stevenson said.
Another highlight is the annual pancake breakfast fundraiser. Stevenson said she enjoys giving children tours of the station. Klarer noted that she appreciates working at the breakfast every year.
At the last fundraiser, Klarer said a little boy was shocked when he saw a “girl’s name” on some of the gear.
“Yeah, that’s mine,” she told him, adding, “Didn’t you know you could be whatever you want to be?”