Firefighter Focus Friday: Laura Leigh Bransford
The fire service industry is predominantly male, a trend that has persisted over the years. The trailblazing journey of women in this field began five decades ago when Sandra Forcier became the first known paid female firefighter in the United States, outside of forest firefighting. In 1973, she broke barriers by joining the Winston-Salem Fire Department in North Carolina. Since that landmark hiring, the presence of women in firefighting has seen a gradual increase. Nationally, women account for approximately 5% of career firefighters. However, at New Hanover County Fire Rescue, this percentage is slightly higher, with women constituting nearly 7% of its firefighting force. Among these pioneering women is Laura Leigh Bransford, who serves not only as a firefighter but also as an apparatus operator, showcasing the expanding roles and contributions of women in the fire service industry.
Embarking on her firefighting career through an apprenticeship with NHCFR, Bransford's path was initially paved by an internship that introduced her to the field. Her professional journey took her to the Wilmington Fire Department, where after four years, she returned to NHCFR, the organization that had initially sparked her interest in firefighting. In her relatively short career span of seven years, Bransford has made significant strides, impacting not just her department but the fire service community across North Carolina. Her remarkable progress and influential contributions underscore her commitment and the substantial difference she's making in the profession.
Within NHCFR, Bransford stands out as one of only two female firefighters who have also qualified as apparatus operators. "I was fully aware that if I decided to undertake the driver process, I had to aim for nothing less than the best." To achieve this, she proactively engaged in months of preparation before the application window opened, working closely with Captain W. Hall and Captain W. George. This preparation was not just about meeting the requirements; it was about excelling beyond them. Bransford's competitive spirit is evident in her approach to challenges; she invests her all, ensuring she's fully prepared for what lies ahead. Her success is a testament to her determination, underpinned by the support and guidance from her mentors and colleagues across the department, who played a pivotal role in helping her realize her ambitions.
Bransford's achievements are deeply rooted in the solid support and encouragement from NHCFR. Her leadership extends beyond firefighting; she plays a crucial role in the Wellbeing Collaboration Team and serves as a 'Fit to Thrive' Peer Fitness Trainer through the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), holding an NC First Responder Peer Support Certification for mental health. Her advocacy for physical and mental wellness is amplified by her background as a CrossFit coach and her participation in the Swift Water Rescue Team for Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 11.
Bransford strongly believes that anyone aspiring to become a firefighter, regardless of gender, must recognize and adhere to the high standards of mental and physical fitness demanded by the profession. She emphasizes the rigorous nature of firefighting, a career that tests the limits of both mind and body. According to Bransford, potential recruits must begin their journey toward peak physical condition well before applying to a fire academy. Her guidance to those contemplating this challenging and rewarding career path is both straightforward and compelling: “Get in the gym.” This succinct advice encapsulates the essential first step in preparing for the demands of firefighting, highlighting the importance of strength, endurance, and resilience in achieving success in the field.
Beyond the realm of physical fitness, Bransford champions a more holistic approach to wellness within the firefighting community. As a proactive member and the secretary of IAFF Local 4576, she extends her advocacy to encompass mental health, peer support, and the fight against cancer affecting firefighters. The occupational hazards faced by firefighters extend far beyond the immediate dangers of flames— cancer, not fire, stands as the leading cause of mortality among firefighters. This heightened risk, underscored by research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals that firefighters are more susceptible to certain types of cancer compared to the general public.
Bransford is dedicated to raising awareness about the significant cancer risks inherent in firefighting, educating both the public and her peers about the importance of proactive measures and early detection. With just seven years of experience in the field, she has quickly emerged as a respected leader and a vital resource. Her efforts not only shed light on the critical issues facing firefighters but also ensure that protective measures are in place to safeguard the health and well-being of her colleagues. Through her advocacy, Bransford is making a tangible difference, championing the cause of health and safety for firefighters across the profession.