PADUCAH, Ky. (AP) — They solve crimes, fight fires and save lives. They also happen to be women.
Across western Kentucky, more women are taking on emergency services jobs traditionally held by men.
At the McCracken County Sheriff's Department, four women now wear badges and carry guns. Dana Rudd has been a bailiff for several years, but Sheriff Jon Hayden hired Colleen Pennebaker, who oversees the DARE program, Lindsey Miller, a deputy patrolling the roads, and Sarah Preston, the department's newest detective.
Preston, 33, served as a road deputy before being promoted two months ago to replace retiring detective Robert Caskey.
Although women are increasingly common in law enforcement, fewer have become detectives.
Preston said she deals with people's false assumptions about her role all the time, especially when she arrives at a crime scene with other investigators.
"If we roll up together, they're going to look to the guy," she said.
Some suspects have mistakenly thought they would have an easier time with a woman investigating a crime.
"They'll think they can flirt with me," Preston said. "I've been asked out by a lot of criminals."
Preston began her law enforcement career with the Trigg County Sheriff's Department, where former Sheriff Randy Clark told her she was the first woman he had hired in more than 20 years of working in law enforcement. Finding a department that would take a chance on hiring a female deputy wasn't easy, she said. It took her four years of looking for a job.
Although around the department she says she's just one of the guys, Preston said her gender gives her some advantages, especially in investigating sex crimes. Many times, those crime victims are women and children who feel more comfortable talking to a woman, she said.
Hayden has nothing but praises for the women in his department. Although well-meaning, at first, he said, some of the deputies' male counterparts tended to be a bit overprotective.
"I think all of them have learned they are very competent and capable of taking care of themselves," he said.
In talking with other law enforcement administrators, some have told Hayden they are hesitant to hire a woman and put her into potentially dangerous situations. Hayden said he trusts all his employees, male and female, and does his best to make sure they all have the training and technology available to do their jobs in the safest way possible.
"I feel very confident they can do the job as well as a man," Hayden said.
The Paducah Fire Department was a men's only group until 2007, when Rhiannon Greer and Jennifer Fuchs became the department's first female firefighters.
Greer, 33, is a registered nurse, but she wanted to help people in emergency situations before they arrived at the hospital. She tried out for the department in 2005, but didn't pass the physical agility tests in the time allowed. Part of the problem, she said, was the department didn't have equipment that fit her at the time. Her too-large helmet kept falling off, so she had to stop and get it multiple times while trying to complete the timed tests.
After being hired, the department had to put locks on fire station bathroom doors to accommodate Greer and Fuchs.
"I just love the fire department atmosphere," Greer said.
One of the best rewards is when school groups tour the fire departments. Some of the girls tell her they didn't know they could be firefighters until they saw Greer.
"The little girls will just come up and give me a hug," Greer said. "They just make you feel like the greatest thing in the world."
Sherri Jones, 45, of Pryorsburg may be the only female fire chief in western Kentucky.
She hired on as a Mayfield firefighter in 1986, retiring from the job after 20 years.
Being a female firefighter wasn't always easy in the 1980s, and other firefighters did not always fully accept her.
"They knew I could do the job, but still, women in a men's atmosphere sort of rubbed them a little raw," she said.
Upon retirement, Jones went to work full-time at the plumbing business she and a friend founded. She became a master plumber, but missed firefighting, so she joined the Wingo Volunteer Fire Department. When the chief left after two years, board members asked her to consider the position. She has now spent the past four years as chief.
"Most people when they look at a woman, they don't see them as being an authoritative figure to start with," Jones said. But she said in working alongside those in the department, they came to respect her as their leader.
"I do my job, I take it serious, and they get the job done," Jones said. "My guys, I tell them what I need done at a fire scene, and they don't back up. They do it."
Each firefighter is free to give input and suggestions. "It's not a one-way street," Jones said. "We work as a team."
Jones said she has never had any problem with fire victims accepting her in her role.
"They're just glad to see someone show up when their house is on fire," she said. "They really don't care who it is."
With the number of women firefighters on the rise, Sabrina Steger, 53, of Paducah got the idea of organizing the Women Firefighters of Western Kentucky two years ago.
"I thought it would be nice if we could train together and get tips on things we've learned along the way," Steger said.
The women, from various fire departments, train together twice a month. They show each other ways they have learned to compensate for a lot of firefighting equipment designed for men, but there are still challenges, Steger said. For example, she said, Steger can't reach the top compartment on one of the Reidland-Farley Fire Department trucks.
The women talk about using their lower-body strength since they don't have as much upper-body strength as most men.
They share ways of holding equipment differently, and they feel more free to ask questions around each other, Steger said.
"We don't want to be treated differently in our departments," Steger said. "We don't need the babying. Our lives are in each other's hands, and we want the guys to feel confident that they can trust us as much as we trust them."
Barbara Gann, 45, of Mayfield is a Wingo firefighter as well as the American Red Cross disaster director for Graves, Hickman, Fulton and Carlisle counties. She also is an emergency medical technician and works for both the Carlisle County and Clinton/Hickman ambulance services.
"I think the attitude has changed where it's more acceptable," she said of women working in emergency services.
She said she hopes some women speaking out about working in jobs traditionally held by men will mean more women will want to get involved.
"I think more women need to get involved and realize there are other things they can do for their community," she said.
Information from: The Paducah Sun, http://www.paducahsun.com