Tracey Hansen always told her daughters they could be anything they wanted – and she would know.
In June 2010, when she was named head of the Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department, Hansen became the first female fire chief in Sacramento County and is among only a handful of women chiefs throughout the state.
But the 45-year-old Elk Grove resident said her rise through the ranks was more of a personal challenge than a battle of the sexes.
“I managed myself to be sure I could pull my own weight and do what I needed to do to be a good firefighter,” Hansen said. “I didn’t look at it from a gender perspective.
“I just wanted to make sure I could do what I needed when the time came, and that’s what I focused on throughout my whole career.”
Hansen will be the featured speaker at the “Power of Women” awards luncheon hosted by the Soroptimist International of Rio Cosumnes March 24.
Roughly 6,200 women work as full-time firefighters in the United States today, according to the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services. Nationwide, there were about 24 fire agencies with female chiefs as of February 2005.
The CSD employs six female firefighters, including Hansen, as well as two women fire inspectors.
“Generally speaking, women make up a little less than four percent of fire service nationwide, and so here at the CSD, we’re right in that same four percent ballpark,” Hansen said.
“Nationally, we’ve made a lot of leaps and bounds in the last 15 to 20 years.”
In 2005, the California Fire Fighter Joint Apprenticeship Committee launched a Women’s Commission to recruit more women to the field.
Hansen, who grew up in the city of Shasta Lake just north of Redding, started her career as an emergency medical technician and paramedic.
“Growing up in a fairly rural environment, we went camping a lot and did a lot of outdoor things,” Hansen said. “I was a bit of a tomboy as a child, so when I went to school to be an EMT, I enjoyed being outdoors and the excitement of going on those calls, where you try to help out people who are having a tough time.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Long Beach, Hansen was drawn to firefighting while she was working for a private ambulance company stationed at a Sacramento firehouse.
“My mom giggles about it because as a child I had nightmares about our house burning down,” Hansen said. “Maybe that was part of it, the idea of conquering that fear.”
Regardless of the reasons, Hansen applied for a job with what was then the Elk Grove Fire Department. She was hired in 1993 and sent to an academy for firefighter training.
“It turned out to be exactly what I was looking for,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else. "It’s scary at times, and very emotional at times, but my whole life I have not been comfortable being stagnant. I like to be ambitious and challenged, and in this field, no one call is the same.”
Hansen’s career rose steadily. She was an engineer by 1999 and a captain two years later. In 2005, Hansen became battalion chief and had climbed to deputy chief in 2006.
Deputy Chief John Michelini, who has worked with Hansen for roughly 16 years, said in earlier interview with Elk Grove Patch that Hansen’s gender "isn’t an issue."
“Chief Hansen has come up through the ranks,” Michelini said. “Everybody’s had a lot of time to get to know her and adapt to her."
Michelini said Hansen's commitment to constant self-improvement has inspired other firefighters.
"She believes in setting an example as a means of developing others," he said.
Hansen said she’s been fortunate during her career in Elk Grove and has worked with progressive supervisors, who supported her and other female firefighters.
“I’ve had the opportunity to interact with people across the nation, and there were some negative experiences, but you have to have a thick skin in this profession,” Hansen said. “I haven’t really allowed those very few negative interactions to affect me.”
Like all working moms, Hansen had to balance family life with her career, which was a little trickier since her husband, Brad Hansen, is a firefighter for the city of Sacramento.
A few times a month, both parents found themselves working the same 24-hour shift.
“We had a family that was very, very supportive of us, and we were able to find day care providers, who were friends or parents, who could take our kids for 24 hours,” Hansen said. “It does provide some challenges, but I’m not the only person whose spouse also works in fire service.”
In addition to travelling, camping and skiing, Hansen spends her spare time playing the tenor drum.
She took up the drum two years ago, after following her piper husband to Sacramento Firefighters Pipes and Drum Band gigs.
“The tenor drum is the easiest to learn, which was good for me because in my position, my time is not always free,” Hansen said.