Meet Mercer Island’s first full-time female firefighter

Kristen Hemke started her job Aug. 9.

When Kristen Hemke moved to the Seattle area three years ago, she didn’t think she could be a firefighter. As she learned more about the job, she realized that wasn’t true, and that firefighters can come from any background.

Hemke starts her job at the Mercer Island Fire Department (MIFD) Aug. 9. She will be the department’s first full-time, fully-paid female firefighter.

“Every time I learned more and more about the job, I just got more excited about it,” Hemke said. “It’s the perfect job for me. It’s such a great fit, and just the more stuff I worked on, the more skills I learned, the more people I met, I really decided this is the perfect career for me.”

As someone who formerly worked in fitness and loves sports, Hemke said she likes that the job is really physical. Her background as a music instructor building connections with people also informed her interest in firefighting.

She loves meeting new people and said she hopes Islanders will stop and say “hi” if they see her around.

Hemke said one of the aspects of firefighting that she enjoys is the connection to the community and the people. She said the job is always interesting and she likes that it’s about helping people.

“You always get to learn something,” Hemke said. “Sometimes I’ve had a job where it’s a lot to learn for a month, but then that’s about it, so I love that you just continue to grow. There’s always new opportunities.”

MIFD’s small department was a draw for Hemke, who said it feels more like a family. She said she has already had a great experience with the department.

In the past, MIFD had short-term provisional female firefighters who worked for four months. The department has also had a female fire chief who was not a firefighter.

Hemke said she thinks her great experience with the department is in part because of the work the women in the past have done and the challenges they faced to ensure a positive environment in the future.

“It’s good for people to see [a woman firefighter],” Hemke said. “If you’re out on a call, and a young girl or really anyone, if they see a woman firefighter, that just puts it in their head, ‘Oh that’s a job option for me.’”

To become a firefighter, Hemke first took a written exam, testing personality and basic academic skills. She then passed a physical test that involved wearing a weighted vest while completing firefighter skills such as pulling a dummy and raising the ladder.

She said the key to getting hired is to be persistent and keep practicing.

“You just have to keep testing, keep interviewing, keep trying to improve yourself, because there are a lot of setbacks and down moments, so I know what they’re really looking for is, can you push through that and keep going?” Hemke said.

MIFD has already started teaching her new skills. The department is very community-oriented, Hemke said, and just wants to live up to Mercer Island’s expectations.

Before her first call as a firefighter, Hemke said she has been practicing as much as she can, although she thinks it’s probably impossible to not be nervous.

“That’s why you go on ride-alongs and that’s why you have your other firefighters and your officer there to help you and make sure that you’re not going to make a mistake, and just really lean back on your training, and try and get as many reps as possible beforehand,” Hemke said.

Although firefighters need to work hard and be able to work with others, there’s no specific personality the job requires.

“You don’t need to like certain things or be into certain things,” Hemke said. “I know one of my barriers before I knew about the fire service was just thinking that you had to have a certain specific personality, but that’s not true. There are all types of people here.”

Firefighters need to be able to take the initiative to solve problems, she said, and there are certain qualities that all firefighters have.

“You have to have a lot of integrity,” Hemke said. “You’re coming into people’s houses in their personal space when they’re scared or they’re in pain and they just need to immediately feel comfortable with you and trust you.”