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Henderson Names First Female Officer To Firefighting Ranks

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HENDERSON, N.C. — Roughly 2 percent of the 280,000 firefighters across the country are women.

In rural fire departments, the ratio is smaller. So, when a female firefighter reaches a ranking position, it is big news.

That is the case in Henderson, where the only female member of the Henderson-Vance County Fire Department is moving up the ladder.

Michelle Satterwhite has stepped into the history books to become Henderson's first female officer.

"I started out wanting to do EMS, but I also liked fighting fires. I'm giving back to the community, I'm helping the community and I enjoy doing that, too," she said.

In her five years with the Henderson-Vance County Fire Department, Satterwhite has suited up in gear weighing 100 pounds to fight fires.

She is not the first woman to join up; however, Satterwhite is the first who has not quit because of the tough demands in a male-dominated profession.

"We have fire services and ambulance services, plus spending the night on a 24-hour shift mostly in a male environment -- that has a bearing on females also," said Chief Danny Wilkerson, of the Henderson-Vance County Fire Department.

"They treated me like one of the guys. I'm equal. They didn't treat me any different," Satterwhite said.

As a lieutenant, Satterwhite's duties will change from putting out fires to preventing them.

Her firefighting gear will stay with her, and when the fire alarm sounds, she will suit up and join the rest of the crew on the fire line.

Across the state, 133 women work in 32 different departments. The first woman paid for fighting fires was Sandra Forcier. She was hired by the city of Winston-Salem in 1973.