What is in this article?:
- 2012 Volunteer Chief of the Year: Jona Olsson
- Persistence Amid Resistance
Volunteer Chief of the Year Jona Olsson knows that the higher value you place on personnel, the higher value they place in themselves and their work.
(Appeared in print as "Builder of Bridges")
It takes a certain kind of person to sign up for a volunteer fire department while in his or her 50s, especially one as underdeveloped as the Latir Fire Department in New Mexico — the second-poorest state in the U.S. But that’s just what Jona Olsson did, later becoming the department’s fire chief. Olsson’s work in Latir, plus her efforts to increase diversity in the fire service, earned her 2012 Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year honors.
Finding an Open Door
Olsson was introduced to the fire service when she lived on the East Coast, where she “ran into a brick wall,” she said.
“Twice, when I lived on the East Coast, I attempted to join a local volunteer department,” Olsson said. “I operated businesses in two different communities over the years and felt a responsibility to give back to the local towns. In both cases, within minutes of attending my first meeting, it became clear that neither department believed in sobriety, SCBA use, and women in the fire service.”
As a result, serving as a firefighter became less of a priority until Olsson and her partner moved to New Mexico. There, they both worked on building their home with the help of a local contractor and his crew.
“On the second day of the job, while I was working with his crew, he suggested I join the local department,” she said. “He was a member as was one of the members of his crew — who later became my deputy.”
The very next day, three women from the neighborhood walked over to introduce themselves to Olsson. A few minutes into the conversation, they suggested she join the fire department, as two of the women she spoke to were members.
“It was a far cry from the ‘welcome’ I had received on my two previous attempts,” she said.
While she indeed felt “very welcome,” Olsson also was overwhelmed by how much she had to learn — especially with the limited training time and resources.
“I am a trainer in my paid career and have been an educator for much of my life,” she said. “It became clear quickly that one of the contributions I could make was to help organize and make training more effective.”
However, she did not have structural or wildland-fire experience. So, the first years of her career, she focused on her own training and then offered to be the first training officer for Latir.
“The level of training and qualification that our members hold today is one of my proudest accomplishments, as most of our department works two to three jobs to survive,” she said. “Most of us were and remain frustrated by how much needs to be done with the few resources and time we have — both to maintain a functioning department and to better serve our rural and somewhat remote communities.”
In contrast to the experience of many other women in the fire service, Olsson’s challenges at the beginning were rarely related to being female. Women had been active members and firefighters for Latir from the department’s beginnings, so her acceptance and full inclusion was immediate “as was the assumption and expectation that I would contribute in any way possible to meeting the mission,” she said. Instead, Olsson’s challenge was to become an athlete after turning 50.
“Let’s be honest — many aspects of this job are better suited to younger folk with younger bodies,” she said.
In addition there she met resistance as she gained rank and initiated changes in the training and qualification requirements to move the department toward national standard compliance.
“Some longtime members left the department when training and/or fitness requirements were introduced,” she added.