BY GRETCHEN MURRAY Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Honor student Erin Fluharty will walk away with a high school diploma, six college credits, CPR certification, firefighting background and the 2013 Michigan Breaking Traditions Excellence Award when she graduates with her classmates from Traverse City West High School next month.
Fluharty, the sole winner of this year’s state excellence award, is being recognized for her accomplishments as a Career and Technical Education student who has been successful in a program that is considered nontraditional for her gender.
Fluharty prepared for a career in firefighting since her junior year by taking afternoon classes at the Traverse Bay Intermediate School District’s Career Tech Center, along with her college preparatory classes.
“This is something I’ve decided on my own that I wanted to do,” she said. “I have no family members in public safety, so I’m not following in anyone’s footsteps.”
In fact, she had to convince her parents it was a good idea.
“They were concerned that public safety careers aren’t the most high-paying jobs and they were worried about my financial situation down the road, but they said they’ll support me, regardless,” she said.
Since November, Fluharty has been attached to The Grand Traverse Metro Fire Station 1 on Three Mile Road.
“Our class required me to get 80 hours of ride-along time, and after the experience, I’m set on firefighting,” she said.
“We put her through the same training we’re doing during the time she’s here,” said Lt. Andy Doornbos. “She teams with whoever’s working that shift and they will explain what they’re doing.”
The Career Tech Center’s Assistant Principal, Matt Nausadis, said Fluharty’s training made her a perfect candidate for the award.
“Breaking Traditions recognizes individuals who are proving successful in a field that is non-traditional based on gender, and it’s a big deal to have successful women in careers like welding, culinary arts, public safety, or auto body that traditionally are male dominated, but where women also can make a good living,” Nausadis said.
Firefighting fits in as one of those non-traditional careers. In addition to administrative personnel, the Metro Fire Department’s website lists four firefighters, a fire inspector and a public educator among the women on its roster of about 90 employees.
“Being able to use the machinery and tools they’ve trained me on is my biggest challenge, and one I’m constantly working to overcome,” Fluharty said. “I’m very grateful to Amanda Yancho, a woman firefighter with Metro and Glen Lake, who has mentored me and answered some of my questions about being a female working in a male environment.”
Fluharty said that since she’s under 18, there are limits to what she’s been permitted to do. She’s ridden along to accident scenes, medical calls and fires.
“She doesn’t get to do a whole lot at a regular fire. She’s never in the hot zone,” Doornbos said.
She hopes to continue working with Metro this summer in order to obtain her Firefighter I and II certification and her Michigan First Responder certificate before continuing on to Lake Superior State University’s Fire Science program.
She has threefold advice for other students who might consider a nontraditional career.
“Make sure it’s something you really want to do. Find a group of good mentors who you can ask anything, and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone,” she said. “I’m so grateful to Metro for the experience. They’ve given me a life direction and are making sure I do it the right way.”