Challenge-Seeking Grad Student Becomes a Trailblazer

Student volunteer firefighters Anthony White, left, Robert Davis, center, and Rachel Gomes outside the Kingston Fire Station.

Rachel Gomes, M.E.S.M. ’20, made history as the first woman to qualify on all apparatus with the Kingston Fire Department.

When Rachel Gomes, M.E.S.M. ’20 came to URI to earn a master’s degree in environmental science and management, she had no idea that she would break barriers by becoming the first female firefighter cleared for primary duty at the all-volunteer Kingston Fire Department.

Rachel Gomez seated on the front fender of a fire truck
Rachel Gomes, M.E.S.M. ’20

Gomes, who is from Milford, Conn., is athletic and loves helping the community. She never planned to be a firefighter, but while at URI, she realized she needed an additional challenge.

“I felt I needed to gain skills that classic education wasn’t going to give me,” Gomes says. “I wanted to challenge myself, learn how to react to stressful situations, and learn practical skills. I saw that the fire district needed student volunteers, thought it was the perfect opportunity, and signed up.”

The department is always seeking volunteers, and training for any level of duty takes hard work. But getting cleared for primary duty, which enables firefighters to drive the fire engines and platform truck, is particularly challenging.

“Rachel is extremely well-trained, adaptive, and can handle stressful situations. She has those innate characteristics that every firefighter has,” Kingston Fire Chief Nate Barrington, M.B.A. ’98, says. “This is a historically male-dominated field, and having people like Rachel who possess those traits and are hardworking is a proud moment for us and the field.”

Volunteer firefighters respond to all kinds of emergencies—including medical and hazardous materials situations. To prepare, they participate in drills with controlled live fire, learn to work the engines, navigate buildings in emergencies, and drive the ladder trucks.

“I had to approach problems differently than my male colleagues. Some people muscle through, but smaller people like me have to strategize.”
—Rachel Gomes, M.E.S.M. ’20

“I had to approach problems differently than my male colleagues,” Gomes says. “Some people muscle through, but smaller people like me have to strategize. For example, to grab the ladder, you would typically go in the middle—where the balance point is—and just take it out. But I start from the back and work it to the middle so I’m not pulling the full portion of the ladder. Little tricks like that help me.”

Kingston Fire Department recruitment coordinator Erik Brierley ’10 says: “There are plenty of grown men, adults, and fit guys that don’t make it through the training. Rachel has gone through the same training. The weight of the ladders and hoses doesn’t change, temperatures don’t change. She finds what works for her and makes it work very well.”

“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Gomes says. “There are female firefighters around, but not here. You definitely have to work harder and find different ways that work for you and ways to complement others here.”

URI student volunteers can live at the fire station rent-free in return for “on-call” volunteer coverage, seven days a week. They are also eligible for tuition reimbursement of up to $3,000 a semester. Moreover, textbooks and other school expenses are reimbursed when volunteers meet certain benchmarks. Gomes took advantage of all of these benefits and sees her experience as an unparalleled opportunity.

“If you want to be here, you’ll feel like you belong here, and I have never been made to feel otherwise,” Gomes says. “I definitely encourage others, especially women, to sign up. It might seem intimidating, but once you get here, you won’t feel that way.”•

—Edhaya Thennarasu ’21

Photos: Nora Lewis