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October 30th, 2020

abby tharp pictureAbby Tharp stands in front of one of the fire trucks she and her fellow firefighters use daily at the Stevens County Fire Department. Courtesy photoROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times

 

Historically, firefighting has been a predominantly male profession. Since the 1970s, however, women have made inroads in both professional and volunteer fire departments.

Modern times have seen women serving in a variety of roles in departments, including fire chief, but as of 2016, women still only comprise about 7 percent of firefighters in the U.S., according to Wikipedia.

In 2018, Hugoton’s Abby Tharp became part of the Stevens County Fire Department. This came after she moved from Newtonia, Mo., and attending and graduating from Hugoton High School.

“It was about nine hours, but my grandparents did grow up here,” she said. “We moved here in 2013, so I’ve been here for seven years now.”

Tharp’s grandfather, Phil Thompson of Hugoton, was chief of fire in Stevens County for many years, and she said memories of those days sparked her interest in firefighting.

“I remember spending summers here and hearing pages going out and always being interested in what it was,” she said. “It came to the point where as soon as I turned 18, I was like, ‘Alright, I want to do it.’”

Tharp said Thompson and a neighbor, who is the EMS chief in Stevens County, helped teach her about firefighting, and she said she simply fell in love with the vocation.

“I wouldn’t change anything about it because it makes me who I am,” she said. “Not everybody can do this job, but it makes me happy to be able to provide assistance to people who need it.”

Now Tharp is also training to become an emergency medical tech in Hugoton, training which should be completed sometime in the early spring of 2021. She said she is enjoying what she has learned.

“I was an EMT student about three years ago, and I decided I was going to college,” she said. “I dropped it. I moved back, and I was like ‘I really want to be an EMT,’ so if becoming an EMT goes well, I plan on going to school to be a paramedic.”

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In addition to being a volunteer firefighter and training to be an EMT, Tharp is also a full-time cashier at Flatlanders in Hugoton, and she was scheduled to interview as a paraeducator at Hugoton High School Tuesday, which she said would have her working with COVID-19 head on.

“If someone is COVID-positive we are aware of, we really take care of ourselves first to make sure we are able to assist them,” she said. “From the EMS runs my grandpa still runs, they have to be in full gown, protective gear and everything and then shower when they get back, it’s about really making sure they take care of themselves before they spread it to any loved ones.”

Tharp gave a brief description of her busy schedule.

“Every Monday and Thursday, we’re in class from 6:30 to 10:30, maybe even 11,” she said. “I work every day from 11 to 8, and the days I have class, I work 8 to 5. When there are fires, thankfully, my boss is really flexible, so it makes it really easy for me to be a firefighter too. He’s aware my oath as a firefighter came first before my job.”

Despite her busy schedule, Tharp is determined to handle whatever life hands her.

“I think as long as you have a strong mindset, you can get through it,” she said. “Closing the store, still having to find time to study for your class the next day, you really have to push to work through it, but as long as you have a strong mindset and you’re motivated, anything’s possible.”

Thompson was also an EMT, and Tharp said seeing her grandfather being recognized in public made her want to pursue this career in addition to being a firefighter.

“They’re like, ‘Thank you saving my grandpa. Thank you for getting me to the hospital in time,’” she said. “Just to be able to help people to the best of your abilities and knowing that you can still be the good there is left in the world and being a part of saving someone’s life.”

As being a female in a male-dominated profession, Tharp said her job is no different than that of her colleagues.

“They expect to hold the same expectations the males do being able to lift 50 pounds,” she said. “There are some places where you’re stuck behind the truck to drive.”

And Tharp said she intends to make emergency work her life’s work.

“Until the day I can’t anymore, absolutely,” she said. “I enjoy every bit of it, even the grass fires and driving head on into smoke with no mask on. I still enjoy every bit of it. The only part I’m don’t enjoy is three days later, you still smell like smoke.”

Tharp became a firefighter in September 2018, shortly after she turned 18, and in that short time, she has seen everything from fires with cotton bales and cotton gins to lightning fires and dealing with tornado warnings.

 “While there’s a lightning fire, you’re heading toward a tornado to put out a fire,” she said. “Even car accidents, non-fatal car accidents, the grass fires that start up because of the wind, pretty much everything but a structure fire. I’m waiting on that one.”

Tharp said she now expects one of those fires soon.

“I know because I said it to you now, I’m going to be getting a call soon for a structure fire,” she joked.

Tharp said she is getting some on-the-job training at this time, and she will be getting some more in the near future.

“Right now, we’re doing the classroom work, and if I remember correctly, December is when we get to start doing the ride-alongs,” she said. “We do our clinicals in Garden City, but we get to ride with the EMS in Stevens County.” 

Tharp said because there are five people in Stevens County taking the EMT class and because of the coronavirus pandemic, those ride-alongs are being scheduled.

“They don’t want people just showing up,” she said. “We can’t fit five students in the ambulance. It was really amazing to have that because it’s made me more prepared for what there is to come, and we got a first-hand experience, not being held responsible, but to make sure this is something you want to do before you sign that commitment.”

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