LEOMINSTER >> For Kim Bonney, becoming a firefighter was always the plan.
At age 16 she started working as a call firefighter in Ashburnham, though she'll point out that it wasn't until she was 18 that she was allowed to go into any burning buildings.
Originally, it had just been a way to fight off the boredom that inevitably comes with growing up in a small town, but it quickly developed into a passion for helping others.
"I've gotten to turn my hobby into my career and I love it," Bonney said, more than a month into her new career as a full-time member of the Leominster Fire Department.
Bonney's addition means Leominster has three female firefighters, a number that Fire Chief Robert Sideleau said is typical of a department its size.
"I'd say that we're within the average right now," he said. "I think 30 years ago they were more new to the service, but now there isn't anyone who gives it a second thought."
The number of female firefighters has steadily but slowly risen across the country over the last few decades.
When the National Fire Protection Association began keeping track in 1983, there were 1,700 women who worked in the fire service, accounting for 1 percent of firefighters nationwide. By 2012, the NFPA reported the number had grown to 10,000.
"Just looking at the recruit classes since 1995, we would start to see an average of one or two women per class. There were some where we wouldn't have any, but others where we might have four or five," said Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Fire Services. "Over time, I've seen more and more women graduating from training."
As Mieth explains it, the shift started when fire departments began incorporating their own emergency medical-service programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many women had already been working as EMTs, and the increased exposure from working around firefighters made many of them to start to consider the career change.
Like Bonney, Lt. Audra Brown had long planned on becoming a firefighter. After leaving the Navy she began her fire studies and has since enjoyed a 19-year career with the Leominster Fire Department.
Brown said she didn't plan on being Leominster's first woman firefighter.
"When I got here, I already thought there was a female firefighter, but it turned out to just be a guy named Kim," she said. "Being the first, I was really shocked to learn that."
She said that it also added to the pressures of starting her new career. Being the first woman meant that people took more interest in her progress; her time at the fire academy had been reported by the Sentinel & Enterprise.
"When things were suddenly being documented, I knew that I really couldn't mess up," she said.
As a lieutenant, Brown now oversees Engine 3 at the department's North Leominster station. In the nearly two decades she's worked as a firefighter, Brown said she's experienced more than her fair share of memorable calls.
"You never forget the child calls, those stick with you from time to time ... You always remember the fire calls where someone passed away or if you saved somebody," she said. "You see a lot of good and a lot of bad."
Both Bonney and Brown agree that being a woman provides its share of advantages and disadvantages not experienced by men.
"I feel like I have to push myself harder to be able to keep up and prove that I can do the job," Bonney said.
While the physicality of the job does serve as an obstacle for some, Bonney said it is by no means impossible.
"You have to have the strength to fight a fire and lift patients and the right personality to do all of it, but I think a lot more women are starting to come out of the woodwork because they're realizing they can do it and want to challenge themselves," she said.
"On the medical side, a lot of people will feel more comfortable talking with a female firefighter, depending on the illness or injury," Sideleau said. "Children sometimes will often respond more positively to someone who is more of a mother figure."
Bonney was one of two women to graduate in her class at the Fire Academy. Despite her official June 13 start date, she had already been working in the department since February. Like most new Leominster firefighters, she now works in dispatch and is pursuing her EMT certification.
In the years since women started joining departments in larger numbers, many have advanced into more integral roles in each other their communities. In the last 10 years, Massachusetts has seen its first three female fire chiefs, beginning with Goshen's Sue Labrie in 2006, Oxford's Sheri Bemis in 2010, and Westfield's Mary Regan in 2011.
Although Brown admitted she will occasionally hear an off-color remark or notice an awkward stare from a civilian when responding to a call, she said that no member of the department ever makes her feel different from anyone else.
For Sideleau, the gender of firefighters remains a non-issue.
"As far as the firefighting goes, everyone has a mask on when you go into a fire," he said. "And that means you never even know who it is that is standing next to you."