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Older recruit thrives as firefighter
POULSBO — Fighting against exhaustion, sore muscles, distraction from being away from her family and, of course, fire, Juanitta Lang remained 100 percent focused while attending the North Bend Fire Academy — at age 51.
But life primed her for this moment: Homesteading in Alaska, a stint in the Peace Corps, commercial fishing for 14 years, and raising four children in 10 years.
After years of working in real estate and construction contracting, Lang said she “just wasn’t done yet.”
“There’s so much I wanted to contribute to my community as an older woman,” she said. “There are so many people out there that have time on their hands … Do you think you’re too old? Maybe not.
“I want women and older people to contribute to their community regardless.”
Lang, a Kingston resident, has volunteered with Poulsbo Fire Department for the past year, and was an EMT volunteer with North Kitsap Fire and Rescue for about a year before that.
She also didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Her husband, Josh Munger, caught the firefighting bug and changed careers 10 years ago. Munger also graduated from the North Bend Fire Academy, and is now the fire captain on Vashon Island — although Lang kept that information from her classmates in North Bend, not looking to be singled out.
She also didn’t broadcast her age. She said when the academy announced she was the oldest woman to graduate during the graduation ceremony, many men and women came up to her, inspired by her challenge. Lang is tied for the same age as the oldest man to attend the academy.
“I saw my husband’s reward,” she said. “[Firefighting] suited my needs to be challenged.”
Fire training at North Bend Fire Academy is unlike any other in the state. The 12-week course is like boot camp — 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. work days; 450 hours of live burning training, more than any other academy in the state. Recruits must be mentally as well as physically strong — even after a full day of walking in her 70-pound gear, sometimes carrying hoses in a few feet of snow, Lang would study for her fire science tests, she said. Graduates earn three certifications — Firefighting 1, 2 certification, and Hazardous Materials.
“The training is now based on ‘everybody goes home,’” she said. She learned “don’t risk a lot to save a little.”
Lang was part of the largest group of women recruits in one class — five of them. She said the men were very supportive, even intimidated, into doing better when they saw slender women carrying the same weight as them.
“It was an amazing challenge. I remember pain, but I remember what a terrific experience,” she said. “I’m proof that anybody can do it.”
Eventually, Lang wants to take classes for marine operations and teaching certification.
Lang would rather work in a small community. She will continue to work for the Poulsbo Fire Department, who sent her to the fire academy with grant funding. Lang first began volunteering with NKF&R while taking nursing classes at Olympic College.
NKF&R and Poulsbo Fire Department have different volunteer programs. Lang said Poulsbo’s program of shifts and training worked better for her with four children — ages 5 to 14 — and working part-time.
Poulsbo Fire received a $500,000 grant two years ago for volunteer retention and recruitment. Some of that money goes toward recruit training at the North Bend or Kitsap County fire academies. Battalion Chief Kurt Krech, volunteer coordinator at Poulsbo Fire, said Lang is very committed, one of his “go to people.”
“She’s a hard worker, give her an assignment and I know its going to get done,” he said. Although her age doesn’t stand out too much — Krech said they’ve had many volunteers from all ages over the years, including a 68-year-old man working as an EMT. Though he’s seen an increase in volunteers, he said they are always looking.
Lang said what really drew her in was the culture of firefighting.
“They call it a brotherhood, but there’s a lot of women, and its a lot like a doctors family,” she said. “The amount of tragedy seen on a regular basis, its a component of the job that has to be dealt with. I’ve seen amazing support.”
She said her children seeing both their parent’s graduate from the North Bend Fire Academy “pulled everything together.”
“It cemented it, the firefighter family they belong to now.”