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The City Journals

Female police officers and firefighter discuss career challenges in their male-dominated fields

Oct 07, 2019 12:20PM ● By Carl Fauver

One firefighter and two police administrators answer questions during a Chamber West Women in Business luncheon. (Carl Fauver/City Journals)

By Carl Fauver | [email protected] 

A pounding mid-afternoon rainstorm greeted attendees at a recent Women in Business luncheon — sponsored by Chamber West — as they departed the spacious Summit Vista restaurant, where they had just spent the previous 90 minutes. But Mother Nature didn’t seem to dampening their spirits after the women heard inspirational comments from female police administrators and a firefighter.

During the luncheon, titled “Earning Respect and Succeeding as Strong Women,” attendees heard from West Valley City’s first-ever female police chief, Colleen Jacobs; Unified Fire Authority’s first-ever female engineer, Molly Swenson; and the second female lieutenant in West Jordan Police Department’s 52-year history, Chaundra Edmonds.

Speaking on a panel, Edmonds, Swenson and Jacobs all described challenges they face, navigating careers in male-dominated fields. The three said work conditions are getting better for females, but there is still more room for improvement.

“I have been with my department 23 years but never aspired to be police chief,” Jacobs said. “We have 216 sworn officers on the West Valley City Police Department and another 46 civilian employees. I didn’t know what to expect as police chief. I am learning to embrace the role of mentor. I’ve had an interesting and fabulous career.”

Meanwhile, Swenson moved to Park City from the east coast, several years ago to become a “confirmed ski bum.” Eventually, she became a part-time wildland firefighter for two years and is now in her fifth full-time year with UFA.

“We have only 12 full-time women working for UFA, out of about 400,” she said. “I am the first female engineer in the department’s history.” 

Engineers drive fire trucks, and Swenson told luncheon attendees when she received that promotion (in December 2017), her proud mother flew out from North Carolina to pin her new badge on her.

“I am thankful I live and work in Utah and not on one of the coasts,” Edmonds told the audience. “I think police officers are more respected here. Particularly, kids light up when they see me in uniform and want to talk with me. I would love to see more women in law enforcement. But the job is challenging.”

Edmonds has been with WJPD 21 years but in her current position only six months. She was the fourth female hired into the department in 1998 and remains one of only 13 female officers, out of 125 serving the agency.

Last month’s panel discussion was part of Chamber West’s ongoing Women in Business luncheon series, this time hosted at the rapidly growing Summit Vista life plan community (3390 West 6200 South). Kelly Ornberg is the chief marketing officer.

“We want to welcome everyone and let you know 54 percent of our employees are women,” Ornberg told attendees, as the panel discussion began.

Summit Vista now employs 140 people, including several Taylorsville and Copper Hills high school students and graduates. The ribbon cutting on its second residential building will be held this month, while construction continues on the third building. Earlier this year, Chamber West honored Summit Vista as its “new business of the year.” 

A week after the Women in Business luncheon, the always-busy Chamber West staff also hosted its annual fall conference at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center (1355 West 3100 South). West Valley City, Taylorsville and West Jordan mayors were among the scheduled speakers, along with Utah Lt. Gov. — and gubernatorial candidate — Spencer Cox. 

As they closed their comments, the three panelists all agreed, firefighters are held in higher esteem — by the public, nationwide — more than police officers. When the officers were asked what residents can do to improve that condition, each had suggestions.

“First of all, I hope everyone will remember cops are people too,” Jacobs said. “Try to greet officers with a smile. And if an officer does something nice, tell people about it—post it on Facebook. That will help provide some balance to all the negative things we hear.”

“Unfortunately, there are some officers out there (nationwide) who have really done a good job of making us look bad,” Edmonds said. “Our job is to reach out to people, especially kids who don’t like us, and talk with them to try to find out why.” 

All three panelists said police officers and firefighters are often dispatched to the same calls. And Swenson found some levity in that.

“Sometimes, a cop will show up at a car fire before we do and use their fire extinguisher to put the fire out,” she said. “That is so rude. I don’t show up on a scene and shoot your gun.”