New Castle News

July 9, 2013

Lady of the firehouse: Brandy Bedilion battles blazes with the boys

Kayleen Cubbal
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Onlookers might be surprised when one of the newest members of the Scott Township Volunteer Fire Department removes his helmet.

The he actually is a she.

For the first time in Scott Township VFD history, a woman has attained Firefighter I status and is working in the trenches with the men.

And that woman, Brandy Bedilion, says she won’t feel insulted one bit if her gender is put aside when lives and homes are at stake.

“I have to be able to hold my own,” the Harlansburg resident said. “When I have my gear on, you shouldn’t be able to pick out the girl out there.

“In fact, if you can, then I’m not doing something right.”



MADE FOR FIREFIGHTING

The 36-year-old Bedilion was born on a farm in Greene County, but moved to a farm in Harlansburg with her mother in 1995, completing her senior year of high school at Laurel.

She enlisted in the Army following her graduation and spent seven years as a member of the military police before going on to college at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Five years ago, she returned to Greene County and followed in the footsteps of her grandparents, uncles and cousins, lending a hand on the family farm and joining the Richhill Township Volunteer Fire Department as a volunteer firefighter.

Last fall, she returned to her mother’s home Harlansburg so she could attend the New Castle School of Trades while accepting an internship as a diesel and heavy equipment mechanic at Cleveland Brothers Equipment Co. in Cranberry.

Although her plate already was full —  especially after she assumed guardianship of her 8-year-old nephew, Caden, a year after his birth —  Bedilion was introduced to Scott Township fire chief Jack Hitchen and she decided to join his department.

“I never worry about taking on too much,” she said. “I know my limits. My mother always says a person should always stay busy enough to stay out of trouble. And that works well for me because I’ve always been a fidgety person. I’ve never been one to sit still.”

She spent four months at the Lawrence County Fire Academy, conducted at the Neshannock Volunteer Fire Company, as she pursued the status of Firefighter 1, which expanded her training and certified her to hold a paid job as a firefighter.

Before she gained her Firefighter I accreditation, she had to take and pass a state-certified test, which included a two-hour written exam and a day-long physical skills test in Allegheny County.

“It was pretty grueling,” she said. “Those hoses are heavy and you’re carrying a lot of heavy equipment. There is no forgiveness if you’re a woman, nor would I expect there to be. If I was not as physically fit as I am, I never would have gotten through it.”



TOTAL CONFIDENCE

Scott Township gets between 150 and 175 calls a year, according to Hitchen. About one-third of those are medical and the remainder are fire- or accident-related.

He feels confident when Bedilion is available for a call.

“She has worked out great for us,” he said. “She is very quick to pick up on things and I think her military background her helped her, too, because she is very structured and a very hard worker.

“You have to have confidence in your firefighters and I have absolutely no qualms about going into a burning structure with her.”

Hitchen said that Bedilion wasted no time gaining full acceptance from his department members.

“She works right alongside the guys and never expects any special treatment because she’s a female,” he said. “When the guys start joking around, she jokes right with them and totally holds her own. She has gained complete acceptance.”



A RANGE OF DUTIES

Bedilion has learned through her years as a volunteer firefighter that fighting fires actually is just one facet of the job.

She keeps her pager next to her at all times and when she hears the “tones,” and the words, “Station 1500,” she springs into action.

“When you get to the fire hall, you find out what you’re going to be doing — part of it depends on who gets there first and what the needs are at the time,” Bedilion said. “If they  need water supply, you’re on water supply. If there’s an accident or you need a perimeter around a fire scene, you might be on traffic detail. If they need people on hose lines, you’re on hose lines. If a landing zone is needed for a medical helicopter, you might find yourself setting up landing zones. And once you start in a role, you stick with it during the entire call.

“Sometimes you just have to keep people out of harm’s way,” she added. “It amazes me how the average person thinks because they have rubber tires, they can drive over live electrical wires. You have to tell them, ‘you’re in a metal car and no matter what, you never drive over live electrical wires.’ You can’t imagine the people who will say, ‘Gee, I never knew that.’

And, as she learned early on in her career, sometimes the word “rescue” does not refer to a human.

“When I was in Richhill, we got a call,” she said. “A 70-year-old man had set his barn on fire by accident when he was working in it. He was totally panicked when we got there, worrying about his animals. We got the animals out and I spent the next few hours running around a field catching pigs and goats.”

When their workload is slow, Bedilion and her Scott Township firefighters will lend a hand helping with bingo at the fire hall, spaghetti dinners or conducting clothes drives for families who lost everything in a fire.

“Every day is different,” she said. “That’s one of the great things about it, you never know what the day is going to bring. My adrenaline flows 24/7.

“I have a family at home and a family at the fire hall. And the one at the fire hall is just as important.”



FINDING HAPPINESS

Bedilion will be the first to tell you that in no way is she a girly-girl.

“I don’t wear makeup or dresses, I don’t even own any,” she said. “I spend my life in jeans and a T-shirt.”

Her life, she says, is a happy one, with her work at the farm, raising Caden, firefighting, schooling and her job as a heavy equipment operator.

“Life is too short to dread going to your job,” she said. “I wake up every day happy with where I am and what I have the opportunity to do.”

She admits, though, that the best part of her day often is spent as a firefighter.

“When I do have down time, I usually grab Caden and take him to the fire hall,” she said. “He’ll help clean the trucks or whatever else needs done. He will be eligible to become a junior firefighter when he’s 14 and he can’t wait.”



LEARNING AS SHE GOES

Bedilion said she takes very seriously that her life is on the line every time her pager goes off — and so are the lives of her fellow firefighters.

“They taught us at fire school that when you stop fearing a fire, you need to get out of firefighting,” she said. “You never know if a wall is going to collapse or if there is a propane tank that is about to explode on the other side of a wall that you’re hosing down. I learned very early on that no two fires are the same and no two houses ever burn the same way.

“I want to go home at the end of the day and I want to make certain that everyone around me goes home at the end of the day.”

Bedilion said she learns something new every time she goes out to fight a fire.

“I ask a lot of questions, sometimes I think maybe I ask too many, but I respect the years of experience that many of my fellow firefighters have and I want to know everything they know,” she said. “If I don’t know how to do something, I’ll just admit it. If the chief asks me to do something I’m not familiar with, I’ll just tell him that I haven’t learned that yet and he’ll go on to the next guy. Then the next time we have training, I’ll have them show me and I’ll practice it.

“You have to be smart to stay safe. You don’t half-ass this, because if your heart isn’t in it, you can get hurt and you can get your buddies hurt.”

Scott Township actually is one of the last departments in Lawrence County to gain a female member with Firefighter I status. Departments such as Neshannock and Mahoning Township have boasted female firefighters for years. Hitchen said his first accredited female takes her work seriously.

“I like the fact that she asks a lot of questions,” he said. “And she never asks the same one twice, once you tell her something, she’s got it. She’s got a lot going on with her work, her schooling and raising Caden, but I know that if she promises me she will do something, she will do it.

“She has just been a great addition to our department.”

(Email: kcubbal@ncnewsonline.com).