Katie Hennessey has always wanted to help people. In 2010 after earning a degree in psychology from Southern New Hampshire University, she worked in the mental health field as an at home aid for adults and at a school for kids with autism. Then she attended the University of Southern Maine, became a registered nurse and now works in the emergency room at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick. But she wanted more.

Katie Hennessey, the first female career firefighter in the history of the Waterville Fire Department, at work on Tuesday. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

“I really like helping people,” Hennessey, 30, who lives in Lisbon and has a 9-year-old son, Gage, said in a recent interview. “I come from a smaller community and I just really wanted to help people and do something that was more challenging than other fields could be. And really, firefighting and EMS is one of those fields. It’s always a challenge. It’s something different every day.” 

In 2015, Hennessey began training as a firefighter and worked as a call firefighter at the Durham Fire Department. Then she received a tip about a job opening in Waterville through the training she was receiving and while working in sales at Northeast Emergency Apparatus LLC in Auburn.

“It was actually multiple members of the department that had approached me about applying,” Hennessey said in a recent email. “I had applied last year, but wasn’t able to complete part of the physical requirements. This year they highly encouraged me to try again because they wanted me on their department.”

Her qualifications and experience caught the attention of Waterville Fire Chief Shawn Esler, and Hennessey made history in October 2019 by becoming the first female career firefighter at the Waterville Fire Department.

“Character, passion for helping others, and trainability were some of Katie’s traits that stood out to administration,” Esler said in an email. “Katie is also an experienced emergency room registered nurse, who is accustomed to making critical decisions in a fast paced environment. I strongly believe we can use her skill set to help to improve our emergency medical services program and contribute to our core mission.”

Thanks to that diverse skill set, Hennessey’s responsibilities at the fire department involve a variety of tasks. 

“My role is one of the more versatile roles,” Hennessey said. “I drive Rescue 1 and help with the patient care for EMS calls. And then, for certain fire calls, I drive the tower truck, so that’s helping with patient extraction, going to be at an actual fire, anything along those lines. I respond on pretty much every call.”

Katie Hennessey, the first female career firefighter in the history of the Waterville Fire Department, completes scheduled maintenance checks on the department’s Tower 1 truck at the Waterville Fire Department Tuesday. The tower extends to 100 feet. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

In January one such call put Hennessey in a dry suit on the back of an ATV heading across a frozen pond with several others to rescue a 1,400-pound horse stuck in Pattee’s Pond in Winslow after it had fallen through the ice. Hennessey was one of three firefighters who got into the frigid water, drove stakes into the ground and wrapped webbing around the horse’s legs so they could hoist the animal out of the water.

Katie Hennessey, the first female career firefighter in the history of the Waterville Fire Department, holds her fire helmet at the Waterville Fire Department Tuesday. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

“I’m actually fairly familiar with cold water rescue,” Hennessey said. “It’s one of my favorite things to do so I have no problem jumping in the water. I was also raised around horses so it was less frightening to me, but it’s neat because in all reality that horse could have died, and it’s a big feat to get a 1,400-pound animal out of the water versus a dog or even a human.” 

Hennessey said she hopes her presence at the department will set an example for other women.

“I hope it opens doors for other women to push forward and to decide to do things that they never thought they could,” Hennessey said. 

Though Hennessey is the first female career firefighter for Waterville, the department has had female call firefighters since 1981 when Maxine Maheu was assigned to Engine 3, according to Lt. Scott Holst, who has written a history of the department.

The department has employed several females over the years including Michelle Grass, a firefighter/paramedic; Rachel Trimble Corey, a firefighter/emergency medical responder; Brittany Corey, a firefighter/paramedic; and Summerrose Alexis, a firefighter.

In the last year, the department recruited Stacey Francouer, Eve ClaireVue, Alexa Peterken and Joanelle Tran as firefighters for the call team.

Many of Waterville’s female firefighters work full-time jobs for other departments and first response agencies. Brittany Corey is a career firefighter and paramedic for the Augusta department. Michelle Grass is a full-time paramedic for Delta Ambulance.

Firefighter/paramedic Brittany Corey Waterville Fire Department

Corey, 29, a third generation call firefighter for Waterville, said her career in firefighting was meant to happen thanks to her family history

“My father and my grandfather are firefighters so I was pretty much raised in firefighting,” Corey said. “And when you get to the firehouse, you make a second family, so it’s pretty easy to follow in this career path.”

Corey has felt no animosity about being a woman in a male dominated profession.

“At the end of the day, all we want is to go home,” Corey said. “As long as you can get the job done, it doesn’t matter.”

Michelle Grass, firefighter/paramedic Waterville Fire Department

Grass, 43, began her career as a firefighter and paramedic 18 years ago and said she’s never felt singled out for being a woman.

“I don’t feel that I get any type of treatment and I don’t get singled out,” Grass said. “We do the same job as they do. We’re all just expected to do our job, but I feel really proud to be a female firefighter-paramedic because the job is very intense. It’s physically demanding.”

Francoeur, 28, just completed the department’s rookie program. She said being the only female in a work environment is something she’s used to.

Recruit Stacey Francoeur Waterville Fire Department

“I work as a security analyst for the state so being the only woman is nothing new to me,” Francoeur said. “In college I was usually the only girl or one of the only girls in my classes, so it wasn’t a big change for me. And I don’t get treated any differently here for being a woman.”

Hennessey shared similar sentiments and added that she’s seen more females join the firefighting and first responding field in recent years than ever before.

“Being a female in this field, it comes with its challenges,” Hennessey said. “But there’s such a huge support of it now. And there’s a lack of people joining this service to begin with, so I see more females stepping up now to do this than I did five years ago. I think you’ll see that number shift soon. It’s really neat.” 

As of 2017, there were approximately 1,056,200 local firefighters in the United States according to the Nation Fire Protection Agency. Of that, just 77,900 or 7% were female and even fewer, 13,400 or 4% were female career firefighters.

Firefighter/EMR Rachel Trimble Corey Waterville Fire Department

Rachel Trimble Corey, 56, has been with Waterville for more than 14 years. She’s worked as a firefighter, photographer, EMR and a Basic Life Support instructor. Trimble Corey has had a hand in hiring new female recruits to the call force and said she’s excited to witness the hiring of the first female career firefighter.

“I’m very excited to have Katie here,” Trimble Corey said. “I was a career firefighter in Freeport, so to be able to be here and see the first female career firefighter for the department is amazing.”

Like her fellow female colleagues, Trimble Corey said she doesn’t feel any sort of stigma for being a woman in firefighting.

“I’m one of four kids and I have three older brothers,” Trimble Corey said. “My father never told me I couldn’t do something, and I really haven’t encountered too many people who made me feel like I didn’t belong.

“My advice for any women out there in general is that the only limitation is what you put on yourself,” Trimble Corey said. “You can do it if you set your mind to it.”


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