Sequim natives. Wives. Mothers. And now Firefighters of the Year.
Fellow career and volunteer firefighters with Clallam County District 3 selected Stefanie Anderson, a career firefighter/paramedic, and Anaka Hughes, a volunteer firefighter/EMT, as 2017’s Firefighters of the Year.
Anderson was named Career Firefighter of the Year and Hughes Volunteer Firefighter of the Year on Jan. 19, at the fire district’s awards banquet at the Cedars at Dungeness.
“The thought never crossed my mind that I was ever going to get it,” Anderson said.
“I have a great job and I love doing what I do. I think there’s a lot of us here who do an amazing job. It’s an honor.”
Anderson is the only female career firefighter of 34 firefighters with the district while Hughes is one of about seven female volunteer firefighters of 56 total.
“There are a lot of amazing people on our volunteer side that I thought were going to get it,” Hughes said. “I was definitely surprised.”
Both 33, Anderson and Hughes took different paths to becoming firefighters.
Anderson, née Gates, started her path to becoming a firefighter at age 15 with the fire district’s Explorer Scout Post 1003 program. She says she joined on a whim but loved it and went through its duration for three years.
As a senior at Sequim High School, she spent sixth period at Station 34 on Fifth Avenue essentially job shadowing firefighters.
“That’s when I really learned what I wanted to do for a living,” Anderson said.
She graduated from Sequim High School in 2002 and was a volunteer firefighter for four years before being hired in 2006. At the January banquet, she was commended for 15 years of service.
Anderson is married to fellow firefighter/EMT Travis Anderson and the couple has a 2-year-old son Mason.
“I love my job and I’m very fortunate,” Anderson said.
“Sequim is a very small community and having grown up here it’s inevitable that on the calls you’re going to know the patient or know someone related to them. Most of the time that’s a positive thing because you’re a familiar face and can ease the patient or family in a time of need.”
More on Hughes
Hughes, formerly Anaka Helseth, began volunteering close to four years ago in Sequim.
She grew up in the area before moving to Bothell her senior year of high school. Hughes became a contract diesel mechanic for five years overseas — three years in Iraq and two in Afghanistan — helping American military divisions.
Once her contract ended, she traveled to Asia for a few months and came back to Sequim and started working for Olympic Ambulance as a mechanic for a year.
Hughes started with the fire district’s recruit academy in January 2014 and continues to do drills every Monday. She currently serves as an adviser for the Explorers program.
The push to volunteer followed a long conversation with friend Forrest Hietpas, now a career firefighter on Bainbridge Island, she said.
“I was looking for that sense of community,” she said. “I’ve always had a compulsion to do more with helping and being involved.”
When not volunteering, Hughes is a stay-at-home mom with her identical 2-year-old boys Evan and Lou. Hughes said she’s appreciative of her husband, Nathan, owner of Hughes Home Concepts, for his support to pursue firefighting. It’s now a goal of hers to become a career firefighter, in or near Sequim, she said.
Leading the way
Despite the accolades, Anderson and Hughes are rarities in firefighting today with few women entering the field. According to the National Fire Protection Association in 2016, women make up about 7 percent of firefighters across the U.S.
“In reality, there are standards that need to be met — academically and physically. It doesn’t matter if you’re female or male,” Anderson said. “If you don’t meet them then you don’t get to play.”
While at the fire academy, she recalls a man who was unable to throw an extension ladder and he was let go.
In Sequim, Anderson said if the right female candidate came along and met the qualifications they’d be hired like her, but there haven’t been many qualified female candidates.
“It doesn’t matter what your gender is but firefighting is still timid to some women,” she said. “You must possess a lot of upper body strength so you have to work extra hard at that, which I do too, to make sure you can do everything (as a firefighter).”
Assistant Chief Tony Hudson said Anderson is No. 1 in line to become a lieutenant for the fire district once an opening becomes available.
Anderson said for women interested in firefighting and/or becoming a paramedic, the Explorers program is great for girls under 18 while the volunteer program is best for women 18 and up.
“Come and ask questions,” she said. “Know what’s expected but don’t ever shy away from it.”
Hughes said while they often receive calls on someone’s worst day, one of her favorite parts of volunteering is participating in community events such as the Sequim Irrigation Festival setting up the smoke house or riding on an engine.
“It’s so cool when little girls come up to me and say, ‘it’s a girl firefighter,’” she said.
Anderson and Hughes both worked for Olympic Ambulance in Sequim and they’ve seen more women entering the emergency response field through the company.
Kim Droppert, executive director of Olympic Ambulance, confirms this.
She said it varies from their locations in Clallam, Kitsap, Mason and Thurston Counties but in the past few years more women have joined their team.
In Sequim, the workforce was 22 percent female in 2016 while last year it was 27 percent, and 28 percent in 2018 so far.
“We’re proud of the women we have and we’re happy to see the numbers increasing,” Droppert said.
Many of their staffers, she said, come in as Emergency Medical Technicians and after they gain experience and patient contacts they continue their education for paramedic certification.
From there, a large number go on to be firefighters/paramedics, she said.
A new trend is that EMTs with Olympic Ambulance are also becoming physicians assistants too, Droppert said.