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JayDee Bach has packed a lot of living into less than 20 years of life.
One of 11 home-schooled siblings. Entered the workforce at the age of 12. Graduated high school at the age of 18, with two years of college classes already completed. Youngest firefighter ever hired by the Minot Fire Department.
Bach has never let age get in the way of achievement.
“It’s been very humbling. With my two years of college experience, I was somewhat prepared so everything wasn’t totally new to me,” Bach said. “But you learn every single day; that’s the humbling part. I’ll be learning for the rest of my career.”
Bach will complete a standard one-year probationary period for firefighters in October despite not turning 20 until December.
The native of Climax, Minn., can’t wait to swap the yellow helmet worn while a firefighter is on probation for a standard black helmet. “It’s the wrong color,” Bach says disdainfully of the yellow helmet. “This year has been all about getting off probation. That’s my focus.”
That focus has paid off. The probationary period is almost over, the black helmet with “Bach” on it nearly ready to be strapped on for the first time.
“I know I’ve matured this past year. I was a little naïve about how the world worked when I started here,” Bach says thoughtfully. “I guess it’s just growing up. We all grow up sometime, right?”
With a diverse background, Bach grew up quicker than most teens. Still, how does a small-town kid from Minnesota become the youngest firefighter ever hired by the fourth-largest city in North Dakota?
“My dad was my biggest influence. He believes everyone should serve in the military, but I knew early on that the military wasn’t my thing. I have a sister who is a Marine, and I wanted to serve somehow to make my dad proud like she does,” Bach says. “I looked into law enforcement, but when I was 16, I joined the Fargo Fire Department’s Explorer program. After two weeks, I told my dad ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
With encouragement from mom and dad, Bach took two years of fire technology classes in East Grand Forks to become certified in Firefighter 1 and Firefighter 2 while also finishing the final two years of high school.
One college instructor warned that fire departments may not hire someone so young, but encouraged Bach to apply wherever possible to gain experience with the interview process. That advice led Bach to apply in Minot.
“I applied here, but I didn’t prepare properly physically and I didn’t study enough for the written exam, so I didn’t make it,” Bach admitted. “But when I was doing some research on Minot, I really liked the way they did things and I felt it was a good fit for me. So I came back.”
This time, the teen was prepared physically and mentally for the rigorous testing. Bach scored well on the physical and written tests, and excelled during two interviews.
“It was a little intimidating because you’re in the room with all these veteran firefighters and I was pretty young,” Bach said. “I think the interviews are ways to find out your personality, how you’ll fit in with the crew, how you’ll handle certain aspects of the job.”
Bach clearly handled the interviews well. Assistant Fire Chief Lonnie Sather soon called with a job offer.
“My first reaction was ‘Are you serious?’ I’m young, I’m green, I don’t really know anything,” Bach said. “I was honored that they would take a chance on me. It’s truly been an honor.”
Receiving and accepting a job offer is one thing; showing up for your first day of work as a firefighter is a whole different story.
“It was very nerve-wracking. Every tone that came in, I was asking ‘Is that us?’ It was an adrenaline rush for every tone even when it wasn’t our call,” Bach recalls. “The very first call I responded to was for a diesel spill at one of the gas stations, so we did some cleanup. The biggest call of my first day was a dryer fire at the Grand Hotel about 10 p.m. A lot of adrenaline that day.”
There have been a lot of calls since that first day nearly a year ago. In between calls, there’s constant training, both in the classroom and in the field learning things like auto extrication and hazardous materials training.
“Even after your hours on shift, you’re reading through books or you’re on the rig learning how to use all the different tools,” Bach says. “It’s a challenge to keep up with everything, but for me it’s all about asking questions.”
Sometimes, though, it’s all about answering questions for Bach. Like all young firefighters, she gets quizzed about various potential scenarios on a call.
Questions like, “How would you handle…?” or “What would you do in this situation?” However, the question JayDee is asked most often is one nearly everyone else at the station doesn’t have to answer.
“What’s it like to be a female firefighter?”
Not only is Bach the youngest recruit ever at the Minot Fire Department, but she’s also one of just two female firefighters in the department. Although she’s likely already tired of answering it, the 19-year-old handles the question with ease. She honestly doesn’t see what the big deal is, despite women representing only approximately 3 percent of firefighters nationwide.
“Some people are surprised when I tell them I’m a firefighter. I hear the ‘You go, girl’ thing. I think that’s weird,” Bach says. “My sister is a Marine, and she’s always taught me that it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female; you still have to do the job. Here, even if you’re male, you have to prove yourself as a probationary firefighter.”
Bach and Hannah Hamilton are the only two female firefighters on shift at the Minot Fire Department. Fire Chief Kelli Kronschnabel is one of two female chiefs in North Dakota.
For Bach, being around a firehouse full of men reminds her of growing up.
“I have five brothers and in the college classes I took it was 16 guys and me, so I’m used to being around guys. I’ve never had a problem,” she said. “I don’t think anyone here cares that I’m a woman. I feel like I’ve been accepted. It’s all good. Obviously, I didn’t grow up with these guys, but we’ve gotten really close. Honestly, they’re brothers now and it’s like we’re another big family.”
The physical aspect of firefighting has been the hardest thing to adjust to, but Bach enjoys the challenge.
“There is a lot of hard stuff to do with this job,” she says. “Are there guys who are stronger than I am? Sure. But I don’t feel like I’m a liability when we’re on scene.”
Bach’s mother had some concerns about her working 24-hour shifts with such a large group of men. “I told her we’re not sleeping on cots in the same room anymore. We’ve all got our own rooms,” she says. “But, she’s a mom. My parents have been 100 percent behind me and have been very encouraging.”
Sather said Bach has worked very hard in her first year to fit in with her co-workers.
“She’s confident. She certainly has a good rapport with the crew, and there’s a comfort level there,” he said. “They have respect for her, and she’s earned it.”
Bach shrugs off her unique situation as a young female firefighter in a male-dominated profession.
“My thoughts are, age is just a number,” she says. “I would say that you can’t get started early enough. Start preparing. Go to school. Volunteer. Do whatever it takes so that you’re not going in blind when you apply.”
Sather says those involved in Bach’s interview process weren’t overly concerned with her age.
“We knew she was really young, but she seemed very mature for her age,” he said. “She certainly displayed a desire for the job, with her history of school and her positive attitude.”
The humble Bach embraces the idea that she can be a role model.
“If I can inspire one person, male or female, that’s my mission every day,” Bach says. “My advice would be, if you have a dream, do it.”