Burning barriers struggles a female firefighter


Presenter: Neal
Guest: Karen Moulder
Guest Bio: Karen Moulder was the first woman to be hired in the Brownsville, Texas Fire Department in 1983. Her tomboyish nature and single mother circumstance led her to this fascinating and dangerous career which lasted a little over ten years. Her career involved protecting lives, property, and educating the public on fire safety. She entered a man’s world back when few women did and became a role model for other women. Karen went back to college and majored in business after a car accident ended her firefighting career. She went on to work managing a physician’s office where she obtained her certification in medical billing. She later moved across the country from Texas to Massachusetts where she started her own medical billing company. She now lives there with her five children and two grandchildren. Her Book is entitled “Burning Barriers”

Segment Overview

Karen Moulder talks about her career-ending accident. She also touches on a lawsuit filed against the fire department she worked for.



Health Professional Radio

Neal Howard: Hello you’re to Health Professional Radio. I’m your host Neal Howard, thank you so much for joining us today. Our guest in studio is Karen Moulder hired in 1983 as the first woman in the Brownsville Texas fire department. She is also an author, the author of “Burning Barriers,” where she talks about her life as a fire fighter – some of her ups and downs, triumphs and tragedies. How are you doing today Karen?

Karen Moulder: I’m great. Thank you.

N: Great. You were a fire fighter for 10 years, you battled through sex discrimination, there were several hardships. I mean the hardships that go along with being a parent, and more so a single parent trying to pursue a male dominated career as a woman. Could you speak a little bit to that and what was your motivation to become a fire fighter?

K: Well as you said a single mother that was me. I found myself in that situation and I needed to find a job to take care of my children but yet allowed me to spend time with them and this basically just popped up in the newspaper, so I got to give it a try and it paid well, it give me time off to spend with my kids. So plus benefits, you need that when you have kids. So that was my motivation to give it a try.

N: Now in your book, Burning Barriers that’s available on Amazon and several other outlets as well. You talk about your life as a fire fighter as specifically female fire fighters by battling the discrimination and you talk about even lawsuits. What was that about, lawsuits?

K: Well, that stemmed from becoming pregnant in the department.

N: Uh huh.

K: Having the first woman in become a fire fighter in their department, they have not set up any accommodations or I should not say accommodations but policies concerning the treatment, on how they would handle a woman when she became pregnant. They basically had nothing, they just took care of it as it came up and when they found out and they basically said “Sorry you’re pregnant. You’re not working anymore.”

N: Uh huh.

K: And if I didn’t have any annual leave or sick leave I basically had no pay. So they basically put me on leave without pay, forced leave without pay. They were not willing to let me work in the office or at the station, anything.

N: Not even in the office?

K: Not in the office. I couldn’t even work in the station, like answering phones or something or working with the fire inspectors which they could have done. But they didn’t, and the lawsuit came not just because of that but it was part of it. But the fact that they would not allow me and the one that followed me to work while we were pregnant and yet they had accommodated men in the department in that, if they didn’t have enough annual leave or sick leave, they gave them light duty. Whereas for women, they didn’t. That’s where the lawsuit stands from.

N: Now, when you’re talking about they gave them light duty, are you talking about light duty say they have an injury and they need time off, but they don’t have enough vacation or sick leave. So they gave them light duty and allowed them to work with pay but if you’re pregnant they don’t allow you to do anything at all even on the premises, is that what I’m hearing you say?

K: Yup.

N: Okay, now is this something that was there a precedent in court for this, from other fire departments who had hired women in previously. Was there anything that Brownsville could look to or did they even try as far as your knowledge to find some answers?

K: No, they didn’t try. They didn’t care, they didn’t want to deal with it and even after we took them to court, they still didn’t make any change in policies. They said they would take it as it came up.

N: Were there words ever said to specifically or did you ever get the real feeling that although it wasn’t I guess against the law for a woman to be a firefighter, was the antagonism overt when you were not allowed to work because you were pregnant? Did you get the feeling that say “Aha we’ve get her now.” Was that the type of thing or were they just so confused and so ill equipped that they just throw their hands on the air or was it a deliberate jab at you?

K: It probably was a little bit of both because I had a fire chief that said, that basically in front of our personnel director said “Women should stay home, be barefoot and pregnant.” I mean this is my fire chief saying this and I mean they were so upset about it, they made him call me and apologize – made him call me. He didn’t call me, I mean he didn’t call me on his own, they told him he had to and his response was he called me and says “Well they told me I had to call and apologize.”

N: Oh that made it really, really genuine for you, didn’t it? I’m sure it felt all warm and fuzzy for you.

K: Yeah, but I mean this is the thinking that they have is that they’re men, women don’t belong there.

N: Okay.

K: And they can say anything for whatever they feel because women shouldn’t even be in a job like that.

N: You’re in this career, you’re doing well. You’re facing, you’re well burning down barriers as the title of your book. You’re facing and knocking down discriminatory practices. You’re blazing the trail for others that are going to follow you, you’re battling in lawsuits but your career which expands like it’s a little over 10 years came into abrupt end. Could you talk about how it ended because it had nothing to do with any discrimination or being in a male dominated career, did it?

K: No, it didn’t. You know the old saying about “most accidents are within a block from your house?”

N: Yeah.

K: Well mine, I was in a car accident a block from my house. I was turning on my street to go to my house and a car driver tried to pass me at the same time so it was a pretty major accident which put an end to my firefighting career and totally changed my life.

N: You say it totally changed your life. Was that a life changing experience as far as putting things under perspective as a result of almost meeting death? Or did it actually affect you in a physical way to where you couldn’t perform the duties of a firefighter?

K: Well, I’m gonna say there was a third one too, it’s yes, to both the two that you said plus I have to totally change my career. So not only did it affect how I viewed life and the people in my life, it also changed my career and then physically that also changed because this has been since ‘94 that this accident happened and I have been in pain pretty much every day thereafter ever since it happened. So yeah, it does change how you handle your life…

N: Uh huh.

K: How you see things.

N: Uh huh.

K: And then having to deal with pain on a daily basis. Yeah, it’s life changing.

N: Now what type of a patient were you if you can remember. I mean you said it was a pretty bad accident, there were first responders. Were you able to I guess assist in any way or make things easier for them knowing what the procedures were or were you totally at the mercy of the accident?

K: You mean when I was there at the accident?

N: With yeah, when you were involved and people were responding as you had done so many times.

K: Well, it’s funny because when you’re the person in the accident you’re in panic just like anything.

N: Uh huh.

K: But because of the training that I had, I was able to work with and get my kids out of the car and be there for them. Put them first because I have two of my youngest children in the car with me.

N: Uh huh.

K: But which, I don’t know I guess I was just like anybody else when it came to being a patient.

N: Well you say you’re in a panic mode, but you did have you know some specialize training, which you know the majority of us don’t have. And I was just curious as to whether in the midst of the accident you as a fire fighter and a first responder in your career were able to hold it together long enough to either assist them. And as you say you got your kids out and were able to help as well.

K: You know I have found in pretty much since I have had training, that in any emergency situation that has a risk in my life, I have been able to pretty much hold it together and get through without panicking. And that’s one of the things that has surprised me and that I was able to do that in each situation that has come up.

N: Now as we wrap up, I have driven down the road and seen some accidents. I’ve seen some house fires, we’ve all seen some things. Emergency scenes, sometimes their extremely scary, and tragic, other times their just down right strange.

K: Right.

N: Could you talk a bit about something that maybe you went on a call and were loaded for bear and you got there was maybe you know a cat’s stuck in a tree or something like that?

K: I haven’t had anything like that but I do have I did have a funny incident when we responded to a fire at the time I was driving and I pulled up the truck to the fire scene and I guess the police cruise have gotten there before us but he had parked in a way that blocked me from setting up my truck.

N: Uh huh.

K: So I got off the truck and I happened to notice that he left his car running. So I jumped in hid cruiser and drove it around the block.

N: Oh. (Laugh)

K: And let me tell you, his face when he came around the corner, looking for his car, it was priceless.

Both: (Laughing)

N: Great. You’ve been listening to Health Professional Radio. I’m your host Neal Howard. We’ve been talking with Karen Moulder today. She is the author of “Burning Barriers,” where she describe her life as the first female to become a fire fighter in Brownsville, Texas. Overcoming discrimination, hardship and even lawsuits as a single mother. And we’ve been here talking about her life as a fire fighter, some of the things that she had to deal with and how she is helping other women who would like to become fire fighters or anyone, who wants to learn about the life of a fire fighter from a fire fighter’s point of view or most specifically from a women’s point of view with her book “Burning Barriers.” It’s been great having you here with us today Karen.

K: Thank you for having me.

N: Transcripts of this program are available at hpr.fm and also at healthprofessionalradio.com.au.

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