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Meet the women behind a Northeast Ohio fire department

There are currently seven women on the Chagrin Valley Fire Department, a significant number for a field traditionally dominated by men.

CHAGRIN FALLS, Ohio — For more than 30 years, Ellita Vedder has served Northeast Ohioans as not only a firefighter, but as a role model. Vedder was the first woman on both the Chagrin Valley Fire Department and the Warrensville Heights Fire Department, rising to the rank of captain in both communities. 

While she has been a leader for decades, her rise to the rank of captain, and role as the only woman, hasn’t been easy. Vedder recalled growing up without ever seeing female firefighters, instead, deciding to pursue a degree in nursing. It was encouragement from her friends that pushed her to head to the Chagrin Valley Fire Department in the 1980s to give the career a shot. 

“There were a lot of senior guys that probably did not believe that I belonged here,” Vedder said of first joining the department. “There [were] a lot of nerves and a lot of fear, but I also have a family background where I have five brothers, so I was brought up in that tomboyish type scenario. So I was never afraid to try what the boys were trying.”

Vedder gave it her all, despite doubts from her new colleagues. Vedder remembered a former assistant chief who she described as “very old school,” who didn’t believe she could pull her weight. She said he would make her wait back at the station when fellow firefighters were out on calls, or force her to stay on the truck when she would make it out on a call. 

It took years until Vedder was able to prove herself in his eyes, playing an instrumental role in the rescue of a man who was stuck in a tree. After she did most of the rigging for that situation, she said her assistant chief never hesitated to let her respond to calls again. 

“It wasn't really the pressure of being the first female. It was the pressure of being accepted more so,” Vedder said. “I knew that it was a position that I felt that I could do, but I felt that I had to prove myself constantly with the male-dominated field.”

That assistant chief wasn’t the only one who didn’t believe in her at first. Vedder recalled another colleague at Warrensville Heights who approached her with doubts. 

“I had a guy come up to me, ask me why I was there, and literally said, ‘why aren't you barefoot having babies and cooking in the kitchen?’ So what does that do that motivates you right? To prove them wrong,” she said. 

Vedder set out to do just that, earning the respect of her peers, and becoming an important member of the team. Her challenges and triumphs, all witnessed by Chagrin Valley Fire Chief Frank Zugan, who joined the department at the same time as Vedder. 

“She had to prove herself probably twice over,” he said. “I give her all the accolades in the world for doing what she’s done.” 

Zugan said he’s keen on fostering a department that embraces diversity, welcoming in more women since Vedder was brought on. 

“She was put on the department in 1987, she was the first female firefighter in our department history,” he said. “It was extremely difficult for her back then, and she broke down the door and laid the groundwork for many more women to be members of our department, and I'm really proud of her for doing that.”

Vedder has never let the odds stop her, and encouraged other women to continue pushing for what they want. 

“As long as you have the desire and the drive to do that, you know, you can overcome these challenges every day and do what you want to do and be in any field that you want to be in,” she said. “Do the best job and do the job as well as any man could do in the same setting.” 

That mentality has opened the door for the next generation of women to join the department, following in Vedder’s footsteps at Chagrin Valley FD. 

Brittany Isom is currently the woman with the second most experience in the department, with about five years with Chagrin Valley Fire Department. She said that while at first it was intimidating being one of two women in the firehouse, it quickly became exciting, especially as she was able to work with Vedder.
“Ellita was very encouraging and shared her story -  just to stick with it and everything,” Isom said of the advice Vedder gave her to keep working and growing stronger. “It helped me not question my value as much, it was nice to know that I would get there and everything.” 

“Someone like Ellita is just a big example for us that we can do it,” said Vanessa Zelle, who’s been with the department for about three years. “The amount of things that she’s gone through to try to get to where she’s at now, the difficulties that she’s had to have to make it easier for us to get into this job is just something I could never thank her enough for.”

Zelle appreciates having other women in the department and said she’s able to connect with and relate to what the other women are going through, and that the women encourage one another. 

Katie O’Malley, who’s been with Chagrin Valley for a few months, said she’s glad to work alongside the “incredible women” in the department and recognizes the road Vedder paved for them. 

“It’s an incredible responsibility because we kind of owe it to the people who came before us, especially the females, to carry on their legacy and kind of what they have set up for it,” O’Malley said. “Obviously they made it possible for us to be in this field, so we kind of have to prove ourselves and show that we can do the job.” 

Megan Linksy, who’s been in the department for about eight months, also said having the other women to work alongside has been helpful, and that she’s been able to ask them questions she may not be able to ask the men on the department, like how to wear her hair for work or in a fire. 

 "Just go for it,” Linksy said of pursuing a career in firefighting as a woman. “If anyone tells you you can’t do it, just prove them wrong.” 

About six months into her time with the department, Bridgette Karr has a similar mentality. 

“If it’s possible, I can do it,” she said. “If a guy can do it, I most definitely can do it.”

A mentality Chief Zugan has seen firsthand.

“They're held to the same rigorous standards as their male counterparts, and every single one of 'em has passed with flying colors,” said Chief Zugan of the women in the department. 

Many of the women said that they’ve been able to help each other navigate some of the physical challenges of firefighting, such as dealing with ladders and lifting heavy objects. While some men may have more leverage or upper body strength due to height and build, the women find other ways to accomplish the same tasks, such as capitalizing on their lower body strength or taking a different approach to tasks. 

As Libby Galicki, the newest in the department, shared, you don’t have to be the strongest person in the room, you just have to want to do a good job. 

“You just have to have that determination,” she said. “And you want to have the passion to help people, and you want to have the passion to show your best and try your hardest every day of work.” 

Galicki said as soon as she stepped through the door at Chagrin Valley Fire Department, she felt the family environment. Despite being so new, Galicki said everyone was happy and excited to have her. 

That family environment is something Chief Zugan said is important to have. 

“I really push for a family atmosphere, family culture,” he said. “We really required everybody in this department to set a good culture, and I think everybody fits in.” 

In the spirit of making people feel at home, Zugan said that in the spring, they will be adding an addition to the firehouse to create more space for the women, so that the female firefighters have their own bathroom facilities and locker room. 

“It’s like family, so you work with your family every day pretty much,” Isom said of the department. “It’s the job I never knew I needed. I love it, it’s perfect.” 

Vedder also described the atmosphere at Chagrin Valley as familial and said the team there takes on a familiar role, and has had her back. Vedder said that the department transported both her mother and father through challenging times, before they passed away. 

“You'll never replace that friendship and that family atmosphere that you have with them,” she said. “For them to be there to take care of your critical moment as well as being there for you afterwards, too.”

Vedder has also been there to support her colleagues through the years. Most recently, she gave up her title of Captain at Chagrin Valley, now ranking as a firefighter, in order to make space for someone else to rise up through the ranks and receive a promotion. 

“I felt it was an opportunity to allow the young guys to kind of come in and take over and do what they need to do to move forward,” she said. 

As Vedder begins to wind down her career, she looks back at the trail she’s blazed, setting a precedent for other women to follow. 

“It's really cool to see a younger generation come up and take my place,” Vedder said. “You can tell by these girls that they really want to be here, they want to do the job.” 

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The video above previously aired on 3News on March 19, 2023.

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