Amanda Ferster is the fire chief of Absarokee Volunteer Fire Department. That’s right—she is. Amanda, though, doesn’t care too much for titles or norms within this line of work. She just wants things to be done with intention, integrity, and with a little enthusiasm.
As a third generation volunteer firefighter, Amanda has a husband, brother-in-law, and a father currently volunteering in her department or in the Red Lodge department. The line of firefighters in the family starts with her grandfather, who was the assistant chief and then chief in Red Lodge, and her father just passed the 40 year milestone—he’s a captain.
Amanda had been in the Absarokee Volunteer Fire Department for five years before becoming chief last summer and let’s just say that her introduction to firefighting was, well, trial by fire.
“It was a little intimidating being the only female on the department, and then they just hand you a radio and say, ‘come down when the page goes out.’” Amanda arrived at her first fire—a wildland fire—without having received any preliminary training and was handed a hose. “When I joined [the department] it was different than it is now because I’ve made a lot of changes and so it was a lot of ‘learn on the job,’ which can be good and bad,” said Amanda.
The summers leading up to her promotion as chief were filled with small wildland fires, typically a few per summer. It wasn’t until after she became chief that she got the crux of her experience as a firefighter, having to command and control structure fires that popped up quite frequently within her jurisdiction.
“When I took over as chief, I started going to the DNRC (Department of Natural Resources and Conservation) to get all of the classes and task books that I needed to be qualified in certain areas and to be in command of a fire,” said Amanda. “I wanted to gain all of the knowledge that I could so I could effectively command my guys and effectively make the decisions that need to be made instead of just guessing.”
“To actually join the department, you don’t have to have any [training] prior but once you’re on, then we require you to go through the basic wildland training through the DNRC office,” said Amanda. Managing her department is not something that Amanda takes lightly. She knows that frustration, disorganization, and loss of interest can happen when the proper education or experience isn’t available. For Amanda, adopting a new program derived from a mentor of hers—a fire chief in Glasgow—was pivotal.
“It’s a mentorship program for the guys that we bring on so they’re not just being thrown on a fire,” said Amanda. This program would help others just joining the department not be in the scary position that Amanda once found herself in. “They have a mentor who spends time with them, helps train them, and who is on the fire with them so they already have that trust in each other.” Each new volunteer is assigned a mentor when they are going to be brought onto the department and this asset also helps weed out the people who aren’t as serious as Amanda requires them to be. Volunteer work does attract different levels of eagerness, and Amanda likes for anyone in her department to know that there are expectations. And of course those expectations go both ways—for the members and for management. Amanda saw a lack of enthusiasm or interest when she was a training officer. When she became chief, her attitude was set on changing things for the better of the whole.
“My department—my guys—are amazing. They stand behind me 100%,” said Amanda. She laughed when she said that she speaks her mind rather loudly—something that actually landed her in this chief position—and she humbly turns to her father in gratitude for helping to guide her in this role. “I actually lean on him [dad] and the Red Lodge department a lot because I grew up over there. I would go to him with stuff and say, ‘this doesn’t make sense to me.’” To which her father would agree and share his experience. “Now that I’ve taken over as chief, I call him pretty frequently and ask, ‘how are you doing this?’”
That inspiration and familial bond doesn’t fall far from the tree. Amanda’s daughter, Ronnie, says she wants to be a fire chief just like mom someday.