Answering the Call

Alexis Pihoker coming out of fire truck at fire station.
Volunteer firefighter Alexis Pihoker

It was 3 a.m. and Alexis Pihoker was on a call, helping fight a fire at the Allegheny County Airport. She was tasked with grabbing a stack of ladders and throwing them up against the building. She forced open a locked door—her first—so firefighters could get inside.

In that moment, as she looked around, she felt empowered. She was the one doing the heavy lifting. She was helping people in a time of need.

From the day she went on her first call with the Mt. Lebanon Volunteer Fire Department in June 2019, Pihoker, 26, knew what she wanted to do with her life. She had grown up in a home surrounded by a deep respect for public safety. Her dad worked in law enforcement, with stints in the FBI, NCIS and as a postal inspector. Pihoker always knew she wanted a job where she was helping others. But she assumed she didn’t have what it took for a career in public safety. So, she went to school for exercise physiology and landed in Pittsburgh working on her PhD. She was repeatedly drawn to firefighting and, after a year as a Mt. Lebanon resident, she decided to join the fire department as a volunteer. Almost immediately, she fell in love with it.

“I loved riding in the fire truck and knowing that you’re going to help somebody. There was a fulfillment in all of it,” she said. “You know when you show up that you have an opportunity to make a connection with them and show them that somebody cares and wants to help them.”

Today, Pihoker barely has time to sleep. She quit the PhD program to work full-time at the Allegheny County Airport Authority Fire/Rescue, part-time as an EMT at Medical Rescue Team South Authority (MRTSA) and McKeesport Ambulance Rescue Service and serves as a part-time firefighter in North Strabane, all while still volunteering with the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department. And she loves nearly every second of it, knowing that she’s helping others every day. It’s not always easy, especially being a female in a male dominated field, but every day, she shows up, knowing that she’s creating a path for young girls whose jaws drop when they see her—a female—arriving on scene.

“I hope it makes little girls realize that it’s possible,” she said.

Making Strides

The public safety field has long been dominated by males. In 2013, roughly 12 percent of full-time sworn police officers across the U.S. were female, up from 8 percent in 1987, according to the U.S. Justice Department. In 2020, a National Fire Protection Association report indicated that 4 percent of career firefighters and 11 percent of volunteers across the country were women. A National Association of State EMS Officials 2020 report showed that about 27 percent of EMS professionals nationwide
were female.

Mt. Lebanon is below the national averages in all three fields, but is making strides to recruit more women.

In the Mt. Lebanon Police Department, Lisa Miller is remembered to be the first female officer, hired in the late 1970s, said Deputy Chief Jason Haberman. Over the last three decades, there have been a handful of women officers, not including the three on the force today. Mary Eichinger was a well-respected detective who started in Mt. Lebanon in the early 1980s. An award named after her is given out annually by the International Association of Financial Crimes Investigators (IFCI) for exceptional financial crimes investigative work.

Today, the department, which has 46 sworn officers, has two female officers on patrol and one serving as a cadet in the academy, and is expected to enter the field training program in July.

Dori Haller Wallace, Mt. Lebanon’s first female firefighter, joined in the late 1970s. Her first serious call was a massive fire at the Lebanon Shops in Castle Shannon that destroyed a significant portion of the building. Today, the department has two female volunteer firefighters, with one more starting training this month, out of 17 career and 45 volunteer firefighters. MRTSA has one full-time paramedic, two full-time EMTs and three part-time EMTs who are female, out of the 34 total employees.

Representation is important

Haberman gave high praise to the women currently on the police force.

“Having a complete reflection of the community is so beneficial to us,” he said. “It aids us in everything that we do, in every situation that we’re in…. I think it shows that every opportunity is available (to women). We’ve come so far in a relatively short time.”

Portrait of Elizabeth Lewis in police uniform inside police car.
Officer Elizabeth Lewis joined the department in 2020.

Officer Elizabeth Lewis, 29, joined the Mt. Lebanon Police Department in March 2020 after working three and half years for the City of Pittsburgh Police Department. She had originally planned to go for a doctorate in clinical psychology, but, by her senior year at Chatham University, she realized that line of work was not fulfilling for her. She wanted a job that was proactive in helping people. She had watched TV shows and movies as a child where female officers and detectives played a major role. It never dawned on her at the time that that was something she could actually do.

She later revisited the idea and went for it. She never thought much about being a female and how that differs from being a male on the force when she started the academy.

But over the years, she’s found there’s a sense of pride in being a woman in the role.

Officer Hayley Barto, 25, knew for years that she wanted to go into law enforcement; she just wasn’t sure what that would look like. She, too, had grown up watching crime shows and dreamed of someday being just like Law & Order: SVU’s Olivia Benson.  In college, she did a three-week ride-along program with a police department in York, and loved it. She started with Mt. Lebanon police in February 2019.

Both Barto and Lewis said they think of themselves as police officers who happen to be female. They admit they do often get noticed faster than their male counterparts. Sometimes that’s a good thing and other times not so much. They frequently hear mothers point at them telling their children that there’s “a lady cop” driving by or on the scene.

Officer Hayley Barto in police uniform in police car.
Officer Hayley Barto joined the force in 2019.

“I think representation is so important,” Lewis said.

They’re aware that they often elicit a different response from those on the scene.

“I’ve noticed female victims tend to feel more comfortable talking to us,” Lewis said.

Pihoker echoed that sentiment.

“I’ve had women who were sexually abused or dealing with something with their child… when a woman steps up and shows up in that role and is there to help them and relieve their fears, I think it’s a very different response than when a man shows up,” Pihoker said.

Creating a culture. Anyone can do this.

Portrait of Lyndsay McKeown leaning against ambulance in ambulance bay.
MRTSA Paramedic Lyndsay McKeown

Lyndsay McKeown, 33, has worked at MRTSA since 2007. She spent a year volunteering before getting hired as an EMT and is now a paramedic. She too loves the uniqueness of the job.

“Every day is not going to be the same. Literally anything can happen,” she said. For many years, she was one of only two female first responders at MRTSA. Today, there are six.

“It is pretty cool that there are women popping up in the field. It’s not so unusual anymore,” she said. She often noticed when she showed up on a scene over the years that she would be the only female out of all of the first responders there. “A few years ago, even, you would make note about that, like, ‘Oh, it’s a woman.’ I think now, maybe, that’s slowly changing to where people are just like ‘the cops are here’ and it doesn’t matter if it’s male or female.”

As a woman and mother, she agrees she does bring a different perspective to the job. She can tap into her own personal experiences to relate to females on the scene.

Portrait of Katie Parrish leaning against ambulance in ambulance bay.
EMT Katie Parrish is a lifelong, fourth-generation Mt. Lebanon resident.

Katie Parrish, 25, a lifelong, fourth-generation Mt. Lebanon resident, started as an EMT at MRTSA in 2020. She, too, always wanted a career helping others. Parrish graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in biology and is applying to medical school this year. She had a few unfortunate situations where she had to call for medical help. MRTSA responded to the calls and she realized this was a job she could do. She worked at South Bridge EMS before coming to MRTSA.

Both Parrish and McKeown say they’ve never felt like their colleagues have looked at them or treated them differently because they’re female.

Parrish knows that she’s not 6’4” and 250 pounds like some of her male counterparts and might have to work a little harder to get things done, but she’s OK with that.

Lt. David Terkel said having a diverse workforce is important. Everyone brings a different perspective to the table. “We’re creating a culture that says that anyone that puts forth effort can do this job, whether it’s a man or a woman, whether you’re 24 or 50, no matter how big or small you are. There is a place for you.”

Laying the groundwork

Portrait of Cecilia Smith in firefighter uniform leaning against firetruck in firestation.
Volunteer firefighter Cecilia Smith

Like the others, volunteer firefighter Cecilia Smith, 27, always knew she wanted to do something to help others. She grew up in Texas, graduated from Slippery Rock University with a degree in strength and conditioning and works for an online fitness company. She got to know Mt. Lebanon Fire Department Lt. Kris Siegert through her friendship with Siegert’s wife, Marina. He always encouraged her to join. At first, she thought it wasn’t for her. She was worried she’d feel like an imposter. But, in January, she decided to go for it and she’s loving it.

For her, it helped that Pihoker had already set the groundwork.

“People have always said such great things about her,” Smith said. “She gives the career guys a run for their money. She’s got a great reputation here. I was like ‘I want to be like that.’”

At the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department both Pihoker and Smith say there’s a culture that’s accepting and, more importantly, respectful of women.

When Pihoker started, fire Chief Nick Sohyda sat her down and told her that if she had any problems, not even just in Mt. Lebanon,  but anywhere that she worked, to give him a call.

She has been in situations in other roles where she’s been asked to stand off to the side.

“You don’t get respect for women everywhere,” she said. “I’ve never been so shocked at the disrespect for women that I’ve heard sometimes.” It’s not like that in Mt. Lebanon, she said. The men have always been welcoming.

Pihoker’s biggest challenge was learning to work with ropes and trying to tie little knots while wearing bulky fire gloves. She just couldn’t get it until one of the firefighters stayed up with her until 2 a.m. walking her through each step, conceptualizing it in different ways, until it clicked. She became so good at tying those knots that during the test the instructor asked her to help others.

Smith’s favorite day of training so far was working with ladders. “I used to be afraid of heights. It’s overcoming your fears and putting yourself out there,” she said.

Even when times get rough, Pihoker said she’s glad to be the one setting an example for little girls everywhere and paving a way for their future. Having a few women already on board makes it easier to recruit more.

“It’s inspiring to young ladies or little girls,” Sohyda said. “I have daughters and it says, ‘Hey, you can be anything that you want to be. There’s nothing that should limit what you can do.’”

Photos by John Altdorfer & Ken Lager